Martha Marcy May Marlene was, for me, one of the most surprising films of 2011. I wasn’t expecting much when I went to see it because so much of the film’s publicity centered on the fact that it starred Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of the Olsen Twins. Needless to say, we don’t usually associate the Olsen Twins with challenging and mature filmmaking and, even though they had nothing to do with Martha Marcy May Marlene, it was impossible to read or hear about the film without them being mentioned. For a lot of people, this led to Martha Marcy May Marlene being dismissed by association. That’s really not fair to the film or Elizabeth Olsen (or the Olsen Twins, for that matter). Martha Marcy May Marlene is a haunting and disturbing little psychological thriller and one of the best films of 2011.
Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who, one day, shows up at the home of her older sister and her husband (played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy). Though the film never gets into the specific details, it becomes apparent that Paulson and Olsen are the products of a dysfunctional background. Olsen escaped by running away from home while Paulson found her exit by marrying the rather arrogant Dancy. Hoping to repair their own strained relationship, Paulson agrees to let Olsen stay with them, despite both the objections of Dancy and Olsen’s refusal to say where she’s been. No sooner has Olsen moved in then it starts to become apparent that she’s not the same person that Paulson remembers. When Paulson asks Olsen if she wants to take a swim in the nearby lake, Olsen responds by stripping off her clothes in front of Dancy and when Paulson and Dancy are trying to conceive their first child, Olsen sees nothing wrong with casually walking into the room and laying down on the bed beside them. More ominously, Olsen soon reveals herself to be paranoid of strangers. As Paulson struggles to understand her sister, we see flashbacks of a much more open (and trusting) Olsen joining a cult-like group, led by a magnetic John Hawkes.
Director Sean Durkin makes an assured debut with this film, subtly shifting between the present and the past and filling the screen with beautifully placid images that somehow manage to leave the audience with an unshakeable sense of menace and foreboding. As a storyteller, Durkin keeps the audience guessing and wondering about both who Martha once was, who she eventually became, and who she’s going to be in the future. Wisely Durkin doesn’t provide any easy solutions as much as he poses questions and then suggests a possible answer.
If you’re like and you’re a true crime and/or exploitation junkie (I’m both), you’ll realize immediately that the character played by John Hawkes is pretty blatantly based on Charles Manson and his followers are the equivalent of Manson’s “family.” What’s interesting is how Hawkes manages to keep his character both threatening and intriguing even after this become apparent. Hawkes radiates such charisma in the beginning of the film that the scenes where he eventually reveals his true colors are shocking, despite the fact that you know they’re coming. It’s a performance that proves that Hawkes is one of the best character actors working today and Durkin skillfully contrasts Hawkes’s more subtle form of domination with Hugh Dancy’s more obvious technique with the film ultimately suggesting that both of these patriarchal characters are just two sides of the same coin.
Ultimately, though, the film is dominated by Elizabeth Olsen who gives a performance that is simply brilliant. Alternatively innocent and calculating, Martha is a fascinating character and Olsen brings her to haunting life. As a result of Olsen’s brave performance, Martha Marcy May Marlene joins with Hanna and Shame as a great modern film about the search for identity. This has been a year full of strong female performances and Olsen gives one of the strongest. The next time some shyster tries to sell you on the idea that Rooney Mara is the actress of the future, tell them to go see Martha Marcy May Marlene.