A young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), flees her life in an abusive cult. Seeking help from her estranged older sister and brother-in-law, Martha is unable and unwilling to reveal the truth about her disappearance. Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, Martha struggles to re-assimilate with her family.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: John Hawkes interview
The indie actor discusses his stellar turns in Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Surrogate. 

4
Olsen shines in Catskills cult drama.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: This riveting US independent, which understandably garnered first-time filmmaker Sean Durkin the best director award at Sundance, is about an emotionally troubled young woman running away from a commune in the Catskills to live with her recently married older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who previously helped to raise her and now lives in up-market rural Connecticut. The film’s title derives the four different Christian names she variously gives herself – to simplify things, let’s just call her Martha.

Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the infamous Olsen twins, Ashley and Mary-Kate, plays Martha in what is sure to be looked back on as a star-making performance. Olsen is a knockout not only because she looks like a cross between Maggie Gyllenhaal and the pre-glamour Scarlett Johansson from The Horse Whisperer, but also because she shares much of their considerable emotional presence and charisma.

You can’t take your eyes off her Martha, and because that’s based as much on what’s going on inside her head as it is on her attractive features, you quickly come to deeply care about her hugely vulnerable character. This matters a great deal, because in many ways her damaged personality and fondness for hippy-esque platitudes could make her deeply irritating.

As Martha’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and unpredictable, so do we learn via flashbacks to the commune about the experiences that led her to be this way. And the more we learn, the more unnerving the film becomes.

The Sydney Film Festival programmed the film in its Take Me to the Edge strand and for most of its 101 minutes that seems a perfect match. Martha’s fragile psychological state indeed indicates that she’s on the edge and watching her is often uncomfortable. But as her instability worsens in the present-day story, so the flashbacks start to confirm our very worst fears about what had been happening on the commune under its creepily manipulative leader (John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone). Gradually the sense of unease intensifies and the film shifts into something you might expect to find in the festival’s Freak Me Out strand, devoted to horror.

The commune starts out looking like a rural idyll run by idealistic hippies – full of well-meaning if youthfully naïve idealism and nothing that didn’t happen tens of thousands of times during the late 1960s. (The film has a contemporary setting.) At first I thought I was being paranoid in seeing echoes of the Charles Manson family. By the end it’s clear that’s exactly what the filmmakers intend.

What makes the film especially disturbing is that it’s not filmed as a genre thrills exercise, but played out in a mode of deadpan, note-perfect naturalism that makes the reality of Martha’s experiences feel all the more real and hard to shake as you walk from the cinema. The abrupt and ambiguous ending may frustrate some, but this viewer, for one, was glad we don’t get to see what happens next. Consider me well freaked out.

 

Watch 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Tuesday 16 June, 9:40pm on SBS World Movies
Wednesday 17 June, 11:40pm on SBS World Movies

MA15+
USA, 2011
Genre: Thriller
Language: English
Director: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Paulson
What's it about?
A young woman, Martha (Olsen), flees her life in an abusive cult. Seeking help from her estranged older sister and brother-in-law, Martha is unable and unwilling to reveal the truth about her disappearance. Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, Martha struggles to re-assimilate with her family. Winner of the directing award (for Sean Durkin) at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: John Hawkes interview

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