Right now you probably know Elizabeth Olsen as the younger sister of the tycoon Olsen twins. After you see Martha Marcy May Marlene, you’ll know her as an actress of uncommon subtlety and feeling. It’s a sensational performance in a gripping psychological thriller, from gifted first-time writer-director Sean Durkin, that reveals its secrets in the silence between words.
Olsen plays Martha, a young woman we meet on the day she decides to run away from a cult located in the Catskills. Durkin and the skilled cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes present scenes of life in the cult farmhouse with a painterly serenity that only later flashbacks will dispel. After two years in this life, Martha calls her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who unblinkingly offers Martha the comfort of the Connecticut lake house she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
Adjustment doesn’t come easy for Martha, who thinks she can deprogram herself without telling anyone else about her ordeal. Lucy and Ted going at it in bed doesn’t deter Martha from climbing in with them. And the fear of simple socializing almost matches Martha’s terror of being found out and pulled back to the cult.
Durkin shows us Martha’s past in sequences of escalating menace. John Hawkes is indelibly hypnotic at conveying the brilliance and brutality of Patrick, the cult leader who seduces Martha into a life subservient to only one ego: his. When the outside world intrudes, female cultists – whose sexual initiation with Patrick is labeled a “cleansing” – use the name Marlene. But Patrick thinks Martha looks like a Marcy May (title mystery solved). Gradually the film emerges as a mesmerizing meditation on identity. Paulson shines as a woman who can’t figure out who her sister really is. We share her impatience, especially when Patrick stages a violent invasion. But it’s Olsen, as a damaged soul clinging to shifting ground, who makes this spellbinder impossible to shake.
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