Martha Marcy May Marlene explores the haunting effects of cults

Martha Marcy May Mar­lene has re­ceived a lot of press for its star Eliza­beth Olsen, the young­er sis­ter of former child stars Mary Kate and Ash­ley Olsen.

She has a face that “looks like” a lot of oth­ers, ob­vi­ously in­clud­ing her fam­ous sis­ters. While watch­ing the film, I thought she looked like a young­er, blonde Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal. A quick check of Olsen’s IM­ pro­file shows I’m not the only one who was think­ing it.

Still, once you get past her ped­i­gree, you’ll find that Martha Marcy May Mar­lene is a star-mak­ing turn for the 22-year-old act­ress, and that her haunt­ing per­form­ance el­ev­ates the so-so film in­to something more mem­or­able.

Writer/dir­ect­or Sean Dur­kin’s flick can be de­scribed as a psy­cho­lo­gic­al thrill­er — al­beit one that’s a bit slow at times. The movie gives an in­side look at a cult and the ef­fects/post-trau­mat­ic stress ex­per­i­enced by one young wo­man when she leaves.

The audi­ence meets Martha (Olsen) as she’s run­ning furi­ously through the woods. She places a tear­ful call to her es­tranged older sis­ter Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who im­me­di­ately picks up her and of­fers Martha a room at the va­ca­tion cot­tage where she and hus­band Ted (Hugh Dancy) are stay­ing.

Through flash­backs, we see how the vul­ner­able young wo­man got in­volved in the cult; we wit­ness the sexu­al ini­ti­ation with Patrick (John Hawkes), who every­one at the cult hails as their spir­itu­al fath­er; and we watch some of the vi­ol­ent acts she was forced to par­ti­cip­ate in. It is also Patrick who de­cides that Martha looks like a “Marcy May,” and he changes her name. 

It’s all quite hor­ri­fy­ing, to put it mildly.

At home with Ted and Lucy, Martha struggles with identi­fy­ing what is real and what is all in her mind. The ini­tial quiet para­noia she ex­per­i­ences soon be­comes full-blown post-trau­mat­ic stress, and Ted and Lucy have no idea what do with her.

The movie has a draw-your-own-con­clu­sion end­ing that was aud­ibly frus­trat­ing to those in my screen­ing audi­ence, but I think it was a good end­ing. Most of the movie felt weird and bizarre, so am­bi­gu­ity worked here.

Martha Marcy May Mar­lene is def­in­itely the kind of movie that has Oscar bait writ­ten all over it, though I’m hes­it­ant to think that this will be the best movie of the year. Olsen’s per­form­ance is prob­ably good enough for some nom­in­a­tions come awards time. The same can be said for John Hawkes — I had some def­in­ite flash­backs of his Oscar-nom­in­ated per­form­ance last year in Winter’s Bone.

Hawkes is ef­fect­ively creepy as the cult lead­er, es­pe­cially dur­ing one scene when he ser­en­ades Marcy May after hav­ing his way with her.

I found the sub­ject mat­ter in­ter­est­ing, even though the movie some­times moved a bit slow for my taste. I wanted more drama. The cult seemed to let Martha go so eas­ily. I can only as­sume that maybe the cult figured they had so much con­trol over her that she’d not be able to func­tion in the real world and would re­turn. All told, it’s an ap­peal­ing study on mind con­trol and how one can make an­oth­er do something and have it seem like it was that per­son’s choice.

There have been lots of movies and doc­u­ment­ar­ies about cults, but not too many fo­cus on the after-ef­fects and psy­cho­lo­gic­al trauma the way this one does. That’s what makes Martha Marcy May Mar­lene stand out in the pack. ••

Movie Grade: B+

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