Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Elizabeth Olsen delivers a first-rate performance in this restrained tale about trauma and paranoia. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Sean Durkin
2011 | USA | Drama/Mystery | 102 mins | 2.35:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language

Cast:  Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes
Plot: Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.
Awards: Won Prix Regards Jeune & Nom. for Camera d’Or (Cannes)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing/Mature
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

Elizabeth Olsen is best known as Scarlet Witch in the Marvel movies, a role that brought her into the consciousness of the mainstream public.  But it was her brilliant lead performance in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene that she first became recognised in the critical circles as a promising young actress. 

Durkin’s film, surprisingly the only feature film he made last decade (his sophomore effort, The Nest, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year), is not for everyone. 

Its subject matter requires some maturity to appreciate as it deals with trauma and paranoia, two key themes that Durkin manages to explore in a restrained if effective manner. 

Olsen plays Martha, who escapes from a dangerous cult where men would sexually abuse women on the pretext that those are norms and values of a close-knit ‘family’. 

“I am a teacher and a leader.”

Being normalised into this culture for two years, Martha finds it difficult to assimilate into normal life when she temporarily stays at her older sister’s place. 

Olsen’s performance is first-rate, but what is as equally worth mentioning is Durkin’s economical storytelling, where he intercuts the uncertain present with the sordid past to reveal layers of Martha’s psychological affliction. 

Clearly still reeling from the trauma, which turns into paranoia in the last act, Martha becomes Durkin’s surrogate in creating visual (dis)orientation around her worsening ability to make sense of reality, one that subtly changes tact without the viewer really detecting it. 

The final five minutes is an example of Durkin’s intention paying off cinematically in what could be one of the greatest abrupt endings in American indie cinema of the early 2010s.  

Grade: A-



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