Complete with the lead performance of an until now unheard of third Olsen sister, the vision of a debut feature director and writer Sean Durkin and possibly the most mind-bending, tongue-twisting title ever, Martha Marcy May Marlene gained incredulous amounts of hype after its power-run at numerous film festivals. Defying every blank-faced shop assistant who (cruelly) asked me to repeat the name of this film when asked for it, I finally bought and watched Mary Minnie Mia Marie this month. Here is what I thought.
Mabel Macey Miley Martine is the story of Martha, formally Marcy May, who after escaping an abusive, remote cult of self sufficient country folk is taken in by older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), who witness the slow and agonising rehabilitation of their tenant. Intercut with these events is the two years that a newly donned Marcy May, formally Martha, spent within the cult, showing her integration into the new surroundings, her experience of their questionable initiations and her eventual disenchantment from the lifestyle. The film seamlessly shifts between the two timelines creating disturbing parallels which enlighten the viewers' perception of Martha's unusual behaviour. Confused? I think you should be.
In spite of its extremely-confusing-on-paper plot, the fractured narrative of the film, while initially jarring, is fairly easy to follow and develops into the intriguing study of a troubled girl's transition back to normalcy after time spent amongst a questionable crowd. The performance of star-to-be Elizabeth Olsen is integral to the success of the film as she dominates near every scene and is the emotional driving force of the film. The young actress brings an amazingly mature and understated performance as reclusive Martha, exhausting every last drop of potential from a notably minimal script. That Olsen is able to do so much with so little is a testament to the talent of this young actress who shines as the socially awkward teen trying to adjust to a normal life amongst her estranged family after rigorous conditioning from a disturbed figure.
Durkins direction deserves recognition for its flawless execution. The presentation of two alternating timelines is skilfully handled and makes for a fluid experience through its seamless interchanging. A standout sequence features Martha diving from her brother-in-laws speedboat and splashing into a cavernous lagoon among her fellow cult members. While the technique becomes slightly overused throughout the course of the film it serves to draw the viewer deeper into the unstable mind of the protagonist, complimenting a script that is heavily performance reliant. Further aiding the visceral nature of the film is the subtle use of audio techniques, with distorted sound prevalent within multiple scenes, most notably in a brilliant shot from inside Lucy's house as hers and Martha's muted conversation is faintly heard from outside.
Each support performance carefully accents Olsen's central role, always complementing and never overshadowing. John Hawkes cult leader Patrick is equally as charming as he is eery and is entirely believable as the sinister Charles Manson-like figure, seducing his youthful followers into agreeing with his every word. Paulson and Dancy convey, on behalf of the viewer, the concern for Martha's erratic and bizarre behaviour, as she swims nude, flees from party guests and lies on their bed as they have sex, while also becoming antagonistic through their failure to comprehend the troubled nature of the young girl. An argument could be made for the physical similarities between Lucy and Ted and the heads of the cult, and how it further complicates the distinction between Martha's past and present, implying a darker parallel between the two worlds.
Mandy Mischa Mollie Meg is a beautifully crafted portrayal of paranoia and fear, it is a star vehicle for Olsen and a strong debut for director Sean Durkin. A film that impeccably transitions between memory and the present, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an example of how effectively cinema can be used to create a seamless world for the viewer to lose themselves within. Elizabeth Olsen is exceptional and truly captivating in an incredibly stripped-back role, showing great promise and mastery of her art. Both the closure-less nature of the narrative and the standout lead performance construct a highly interpretive and haunting piece of cinema and an exquisite piece of film.