A double-dose of revelatory feature-film debuts, Martha Marcy May Marlene marks the arrival of two noteworthy newcomers. Writer/Director Sean Durkin delivers a sophisticated slice of life, anchored by Elizabeth Olsen’s unflinching lead performance. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a smoldering dose of smoke and mirrors that warrants repeat viewings.
Haunted by flickers and flashbacks and nightmares about her time in the Catskills with messianic Patrick (John Hawkes) and his followers, Martha attempts a rocky re-assimilation into the real world with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Caught up in a complex mélange of memories and mounting paranoia about Patrick’s cult coming after her, Martha struggles to maintain her already tenuous grasp on reality amidst mounting tensions with her sister.
It’s an extraordinarily layered film. Durkin weaves an elaborate web of mystery and memory, seamlessly blending one into the other and back again. There are some wonderful shades of Ingmar Bergman, particularly Persona and Through a Glass Darkly, as well as another Bergman inspired piece, Robert Altman’s Images. Like the films by Bergman and Altman, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a textured tapestry examining a fractured sense of self. It’s a murky film. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes adds a surreal sense of beauty to the bewilderment; as the film progresses and Martha is consumed by doubt and paranoia, the picture seem to get hazier, fuzzier, the lines blend and blur out of focus.
Also like Bergman and Altman’s films, Durkin’s features a powerful female lead. If there’s one thing to take away from this movie, it’s this: Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation. Her performance is so raw, so unfettered, it’s hard to believe that Mary Kate & Ashley are her older sisters. The film is good, but Olsen’s performance is what makes it great. She grounds us in this world. She makes it real, immediate.
Of course, John Hawkes is no slouch. I would not be at all surprised if his performance as Patrick earns him another Academy Award nomination. Hawkes plays Patrick with an unsettling blend of tenderness and terror. It’s such a subtle performance, on par with Ryan Gosling in Drive, with an almost imperceptible underlying layer of menace that Hawkes only hints at. As slight as those hints may be, they are unbelievably effective. Hawkes is haunting.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is not an easy film to digest. It’s dark. It’s disturbing. Elizabeth Olsen brings so much energy to Martha’s desperate scramble back to reality, which is made all the more harrowing by Durkin’s hazy, dreamlike storytelling. Durkin has crafted a maze and invited us to find our own way out. I like that.