"It really did feel like making two films," Elizabeth Olsen says. If only a viewer watching her new movie, Martha Marcy May Marlene, felt the same certainty she did when making it — the reassurance of knowing, from moment to moment, exactly where and who you are.
To the credit of Olsen, and writer-director Sean Durkin, their immensely unsettling new feature takes that comfort off the table almost immediately. A psychological thriller whose most effective technique is sudden and jarring dislocation, and a character study in which the crucial element of identity is severely disrupted, Martha Marcy May Marlene made a huge impression last winter at Sundance, where Durbin took top honors as director and Olsen announced herself, in her first starring role, as a fierce and fearless talent.
The story is relatively simple — though despite the coverage the movie's already received, we suggest you stop reading if you're going to see it (and you should). After two years missing, a stoic, inscrutable girl reaches out, without explanation, to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). The word "cult" is never uttered by anyone in the movie — certainly not by the traumatized girl, which would require a self-awareness that we learn has been deliberately, methodically stripped from her. But the film opens in medias res, culminating in what looks like her escape from some kind of rural compound.
To say she escaped, though, is technically accurate but not completely true. Because escape implies that you got away — and Olsen's character, known to her sister as Martha, is haunted to the point that she isn't even necessarily in sync with time around her. The film roots everything we see of her past (with a few telling exceptions) in Martha's fractured memory, as she tries to reacquaint herself with a "normal" life she no longer recognizes.
"I like storytelling that plays with linear structure and goes against that," Olsen says of what drew her to the film, joined by Durkin just after their triumphant screening last month at the New York Film Festival. Her director says he was happy to oblige her.
"If we had the opportunity to start a scene and have you be unaware of what space you were in, that was always what we would try to do," Durkin says. In that way, the film commands the viewer's attention by removing our bearings — much as Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult's leader, begins transforming Martha into her new identity as "Marcy May." Hawkes, best known as the fearsome uncle in Winter's Bone, is persuasively approachable but aloof as the patriarch, whose withholding of approval is his weapon. His subtly chilling performance yields countless dividends in how each of Patrick's followers takes his slightest gesture of kindness as a bountiful gift — including the vulnerable Martha. As he gains control over her by providing disdain, sexual abuse, food control and psychological manipulation in place of the love she craves, what has teased us as a thriller deepens, darkens into a tragedy.
Martha's eventual — or in the movie's scrambled chronology, initial — decision to flee Patrick and the cult is an act of incredible moral courage and personal strength. But Olsen plays it as a survival instinct, a reflex that sends her out and away and back to her sister Lucy. "There really wasn't that much time to prepare and do extra research, which I'm now very happy about," says Olsen, who seems as self-possessed and focused in person as Martha is disoriented. If anything, that lack of calculation fits the character, who's trying to behave as if nothing's wrong — even when she climbs into bed with her hosts while they're having sex — on the guidance of a madly spinning inner compass. Inside, she's a mystery even to herself. Though her mind is constantly undermining her, she acts as unhesitatingly in the moment as any Western badass, as if the illusion of control might produce the real thing.
"The film is always intended to be in Martha's perspective," Durkin explains. "We wanted to make it more from the perspective of people as they are inducted." To heighten that sense of disruption, he filmed the cult scenes in one intense 10-day shoot in the Catskills, then reconvened the cast and crew after a break at the location of the sister's house — a clear division that made each equally real to the performers, and all that much harder for a viewer to tell apart.
Though Martha Marcy May Marlene is Durkin's first feature — he produced Antonio Campos' acclaimed Afterschool (which showed at the 2010 Nashville Film Festival), with Campos returning the favor here — his direction already shows a Kubrickian precision and formal control. The movie keenly exploits the way the Western eye reads frames from left to right: Durkin and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (who also shot Afterschool) favor keeping their compositions open on the right side, leaving us to dread whatever person or switch in locale might lurk there; tension arises merely from the way we've been processed to take in information our whole lives. And the shadows here are never absolute, a masterful detail that the movie shares with Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Even in the darkest corners of the cult compound, there's nowhere to hide.
But the movie hinges upon Olsen's bravely unyielding performance, a front that conceals fathomless existential confusion and fear. So convincing is she in the part — and so fully does Durkin get us to share the character's terrifying dislocation — that it was reassuring to see her and Durkin at the festival, playing the familiar parts of Hollywood emissaries with a movie to promote. As Martha Marcy May Marlene's fame spreads, and their services are demanded even more on the promotional circuit this awards season, here's hoping they didn't simply exchange one kind of soul-crushing disorientation for another.
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