Review: ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ is Haunting, Harrowing, Humane and Heartfelt

The real-life experience of being seduced into a cult and dealing with its psychological ramifications is probably a lot like that undergone by Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) in Martha Marcy May Marlene. That’s the highest praise one could offer this engaging drama, which arrives in theaters after causing a mini sensation on the festival circuit, complete with an unfortunate title and a brand new Indie It Girl in Olsen.

Writer/director Sean Durkin‘s feature filmmaking debut isn’t going to cure global hunger or cause world peace, despite what the frenzied hype might suggest. It is, however, an assured work that achieves the tricky feat of offering a finely-tuned window into the existential burdens of its protagonist while simultaneously keeping her at a distance.

The picture’s split chronology parallels Martha’s introduction into the Upstate New York “family” led by the manipulative, charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) and her re-integration into her real family two years later. Without launching into convoluted explanations for Martha’s actions, the film follows her experiences in the harrowing reclusive clan, which has a propensity for guns, austere clothing and psychological torture, as well as a general acceptance of vicious physical abuse. At the same time, she is shown adrift in the lavish lakefront Connecticut home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy).

In structuring his narrative, Durkin draws out the torturous nature of Martha’s particular form of post-traumatic stress disorder, in which random events trigger terrible memories and innocuous experiences blend with terrifying ones. The movie adopts a ground-level view of its subject, becoming firmly enmeshed in her disoriented, troubled mind. Flashbacks are tinged with suspense and horror; Durkin demonstrates an aptitude for generating tension and creating an atmosphere laced with unease, even when there’s little more than a hint of the sinister.

Olsen (little sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley, for the three readers who weren’t aware) really is pretty great, giving a haunted, grief-stricken performance that conveys a considerable degree of inner turmoil. At the same time, she convincingly blends into Patrick’s sadistic pastoral family, adopting a sort of blankly smitten approach as she listens to Patrick speak, or as she earnestly invokes the benefits of a “purifying” ritual. Olsen’s sharp work is doubly noteworthy because it comes without the sort of big cathartic sequence that might have been provided by a lesser filmmaker. Martha never quite says what she’s thinking, so it’s up to Olsen to help us find whatever wisdom and pathos there is to be found within the opaque character.

Martha Marcy May Marlene shows little interest in the typical rewards of moviegoing, eschewing dramatic payoffs, rejecting structural efficiencies and largely wringing the emotion out of the process. It’s a complicated effort, simultaneously evoking the allure of a remote, cut-off lifestyle — where it’s possible, as the characters note, to just “exist” — and the terrible realities that come with wholly submitting to another person. It’s a painstakingly realistic depiction of brainwashing’s corrosive effects and a movie that utterly rejects any sort of bigger picture approach. Put simply, it’s a film about the visceral facts of the depressing, confusing, exciting, terrifying moment that Martha is stuck in, and nothing more.

The Upside: Elizabeth Olsen is terrific. The movie offers an incisive look at the allure of life in a cult and the challenges of the “detox” process.

The Downside: It’s not as affecting as one might hope. Martha never really changes and filmmaker Sean Durkin makes a conscious effort to resist any old-fashioned emotional trappings.

On the Side: We’re pretty sure Mary-Kate or Ashley couldn’t quite give the same caliber of performance as their little sister.

Grade: B

Robert Levin has written dozens (if not hundreds) of reviews for Film School Rejects since his first piece in 2009. He is the film critic for amNewYork, one of the most widely circulated daily newspapers in New York City and the United States, and the paper's website He's a Brooklyn resident who tries very hard not to be a cliche.

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