When a film is as highly anticipated, especially on the notably critical independent circuit, as Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, it can go one of two ways. Either you are left coldly disappointed, berating yourself for buying into the industry buzz or in the case of this film you are left haunted and mesmerised, waiting eagerly for what both Durkin and his star Elizabeth Olsen have to offer next.
This is a slow burner by any definition, cutting seamlessly from past to present, interweaving Martha’s (Olsen) time in a self-sustaining cult to the psychological damage it effects on her now. The prevalent use of close-up with stark locations create an eerie atmosphere to the film, one that effortlessly reflects the traumatised mindset of the protagonist.
Struggling to interact with her haughty older sister and impatient brother-in-law, Martha becomes increasingly distant and paranoid, something increasingly justified as the violence and hypocrisy of the cult is revealed. Martha may have physically escaped but her experiences seem forever ingrained in her mind.
Imperative to this psychological character study are of course the performances, with Olsen never failing to captivate her audience, utterly vulnerable and yet displaying feistiness you root for. Notable support is provided by cult leader John Hawkes who is quietly terrifying, as well as Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy as Martha’s only family, providing the judgmental, metropolitan counterpoint to Martha’s former communal existence.
Just as Martha’s time in the cult is one she won’t easily forget, this is a film that will stay with you long after you have finished watching it.
Verdict: Subtle, understated and yet disturbingly powerful. One not to be missed.