Not to be confused as one of the cutesy tween stars, the Olsen Twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, little sister Elizabeth has cut her fledgling feature film teeth with far more sinister material in debut writer-director Sean Durkin’s psychological thriller, Martha Marcy May Marlene. Olsen’s performance can only be described as a groundbreaking career move as she takes the lead as Martha, a girl escaping the clutches of a cult existence. Durkin’s unsettling and whimsical thriller is so effective in disorientating the viewer, as you try to decipher what is fact and fiction through the eyes and memories of a troubled young woman, that it leaves more disturbing questions than answers.
After two years living under the name of Marcy May, Martha (Olsen) runs away from a hippie-style, self-sufficient commune run by the enigmatic Patrick (John Hawkes) after witnessing some atrocities. She contacts her estranged older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is happily married to Ted (Hugh Dancy) and living a prosperous lifestyle away from the city. But back at her sister’s holiday home, Martha begins reliving the nightmares as we question who is the real danger in a somewhat idyllic setting?
Those of us unfortunate enough to come into contact with such cult-like groups will acknowledge that the effects on any one person are very different to another, and the subtly with which the ‘teachings’ – or reprogramming – occurs makes re-assimilation into society all the more tenuous, even treacherous on the individual concerned. Durkin has captured this slow and deliberate process with great expertise and harrowing effect in his filming style, also showing that the ‘victim’ (Martha) can also be the perpetrator.
Durkin wants our empathy with Martha’s experience to stand firm, hence the lines drawn at the start of the film are very clear, with Olsen painting a tragic, haunted and exhausted case after her cry for help. We witness her numbed personality and fully experience the frustrations of Martha’s sister and sceptical brother-in-law as they try to gain ‘the truth’ during her changeable mood swings. Here, our sympathies grow for a family divided.
It is only after Martha’s increasingly erratic behaviour that our sympathies then become shredded, and the flashbacks fill in more of the picture. Every gesture or quote from Marcy May’s lifestyle is never squandered, but rears its ugly head later on in some part of the story, making for a highly accomplished piece of first-time writing. That said Durkin deliberately leaves elements unanswered to continue challenging our perceptions and prejudices that cloud our altering judgements.
Naturally, with such a controversial subject matter, some might have trouble watching the more abusive scenes, which are never titillating as to cause unnecessary offence or diminish to the problematic nature of societal faction groups, as there are so many elements at play. However, these scenes are more menacing in a subconscious way as we try to reason our way through events, and figure out what is the appropriate response at times. In a sense, Durkin has become both educator and manipulator, with his star, Olsen, as his alluring accomplice, and we are left with our character loyalties in disarray after watching.
Both filmmaker and star stand to benefit from this excellent and somewhat mesmerising, if fearful and a touch ambiguous psychological ride whose power is in the subtleties of the fragile human condition, as well as its astoundingly self-assured lead performance from rising star Olsen.