Courtesy of JODY LE / FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
We are different people at different points in our life.
In the gritty and psychologically straining film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Elizabeth Olsen’s Martha takes this rather literally, when she adopts the name Marcy May after joining a cult.
In an interview with The Eagle, Olsen described playing one broken woman at different times in her life.
“It really did feel like making two different movies, because she has two different journeys in both locations,” Olsen said. “I felt lucky that I got to be able to explore someone’s positive life of growth … even though it ends up turning out not so great.”
Not so great is a bit of an understatement, as Martha finds the cult isn’t as wholesome and freeing as she thought.
Cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”) has a totalitarian grip on the cult members, and his motives aren’t always pure. More often than not, the film becomes uncomfortable and intimate as Martha is faced with ethical and personal dilemmas.
But the cult is the only part of the film. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” switches between Martha’s experiences in the cult and her life two years after she flees it to stay with her well-to-do sister and her husband.
However, her mental stability slowly unravels the longer she stays with them, making her sister increasingly uncomfortable and distancing the two once-close sisters.
The film constantly jumps back and forth in time without forewarning. Director Sean Durkin cuts flash-forwards and flashbacks seamlessly together so that you’re never quite sure of what takes place in the past or the present. The jumps in time are unnerving and unsettling, reflecting Martha’s own fragile state of mind.
Olsen delivers an incredibly organic performance as Martha and Marcy May. In her scenes in the present where she has taken residence with her sister, Olsen gives a raw performance as a woman struggling with the trauma inflicted on her by the cult, which provides a strong contrast with her naive and trusting performance during her time with the cult.
Olsen holds nothing back from her very personal performance, untouched by the Hollywood glitz and glamour that plagues her sisters.
Hawkes gives a magnetic performance as the cult leader Patrick. He is at times despicable and at other times gentle, making one wary of his intentions but hoping to trust him at the same. His performance is so strong that it makes it hard to see Hawkes in any other way but the villainous light in which “Martha Marcy May Marlene” casts him.
Sarah Paulson (“Serenity”) and Hugh Dancy (“Confessions of a Shopaholic”) play the perfectly normal sister and husband that Martha seeks refuge with after fleeing the cult.
They aren’t given much to do other than act exasperated and dumbfounded by Martha’s behavior and increasingly unstable mental state. Despite the important roles they play in Martha’s life, they don’t make much of an impression.
The ambiguous ending of the film is perhaps one of its most powerful parts.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” succeeded in being uncomfortable, unnerving and uncertain, but the ending even further emphasizes these feelings.
“We’re not used to seeing something in transition,” Olsen said. “We go and we see something that’s fixed up and tied in a knot or shocking us or something like that. And that’s what we see in movies, but we never have that type of satisfaction in life, and everything’s a transition period.”