So often the most powerful card in a brooding character study ends up the one never played. The mystery lying behind the on-screen display of social perversion, which in the case of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” comes as a manipulative cult, can drive intense interest just through sheer curiosity as to what possible force in this universe could drive such queer behavior.
Our only window to that explanation is lead actress Elizabeth Olsen. The younger sister of twin child stars quickly distances herself as a talent to be reckoned with. She plays a young woman who has successfully run away from a cult in upstate New York and attempts to re-assimilate with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy) in their wealthy Connecticut summer home.
Writer/director Sean Durkin constructs some pristine transitions between Martha’s present rehabilitation and the key revealing moments of her troubled two years as Marcy May. In doing so he flawlessly conveys her psychological trauma and injects suspense (however temporary) into the narrative.
Durkin opts for long takes and minimal camera movement, which provides a sense of authenticity. This might seem counterintuitive, as a “documentary feel” can most often be attributed to shaky-cam, but it allows us to really observe and study Olsen’s character (as well as her acting).
True to the schizophrenic nature of the title, we get a number of different shades from Olsen’s performance. We see her as a sweet young woman, a rebel, afraid, in control, angry, sad —all of the above. Then of course there’s the stoic, emotionless side that we see plenty of throughout the film. Olsen owns all of these, despite that Martha never undergoes an arc or journey as a character due to the constant flashbacks. Rather it’s we the viewer who goes on that journey from uninformed to somewhat enlightened.
It’s not nearly as transformative a process as Durkin would have us believe, as all along we assume the traumatic nature of Martha’s time with Patrick (John Hawkes) and the many young men and women on the farm. The real rub comes from an understanding that their way of life has some convincing selling points, but in methodology it is no less devoid of evil than what’s considered normal.
The intrigue posed by this psychology study drives the tempo, as Durkin stylistically (outside of the transitions) does us no favors in changing the film’s pace through dramatic incident until the last 20 minutes or so, and even that has a certain subtlety to it. Still, he demonstrates visual adeptness with a camera and keeps our curiosity active throughout.
Although missing the kind of revelation that makes these kinds of dramatic thrillers unforgettable, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” showcases top-notch craftsmanship and a leading performance that rarely fails to captivate.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Written and Directed by Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy