I’ve left it a little too long since I saw this film to write an effective review, but if there’s anything I want to get across it’s how I really liked the way the atmosphere is handled by first-time director Sean Durkin. In fact, both the director and his lead actor, Elizabeth Olsen, are new to me and they certainly make their presence welcome. The film deals with rather fragile themes: a woman struggles away from a wilderness encampment to call her sister, and it slowly unfolds that she’d been inducted into a cult and must deal with years of conditioning that have removed certain inhibitions just as they’ve implanted paranoid suspicion. The title reinforces this in so far as Olsen is playing a young woman named Martha, who has been given the name Marcy May by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and who further subsumes her identity — as do all the female members of the cult — into that of ‘Marlene’ so far as the outside world is concerned.
Olsen brilliantly handles the fraught range of emotions her character Martha must go through, both in the framing story of her relations with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and in flashback scenes set at the cult. John Hawkes, too, is a wonderfully underrated actor who makes a real mark here as a very subtly creepy and controlling presence, and Hawkes is one of those rare actors whom I’ve seen do both extremes of good-guy and bad-guy characters and pull them off with equal conviction, which is possibly the best kind of background to have to really convince as someone whose shadiness must be tempered with some believable charisma.
The filmmaking heightens a slow-building tension through making good use of long shots in the scenes at Lucy’s secluded home, which open up the landscape around Martha and place her as often a small figure against the wilderness where the threat from the cult still lurks for her (and still casts an odd attraction). The flashback scenes also hint at some of the controlling methods used by Patrick and the group over the women, and combine with Martha’s actions when back in the care of her sister, to suggest a much darker and more disturbing life that she has escaped. Whether she really gets free of these influences is never quite resolved by the film, leaving the question of her rehabilitation hanging.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very confidently crafted film that introduces a number of excellent new filmmakers. It fits in the same kind of darkly ambiguous psychological territory as Night Moves (indeed, as many of Kelly Reichardt’s films), so I can only look forward to further films from Durkin (as director) and Olsen (as actor).
Director/Writer Sean Durkin; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 28 November 2013.