The effects of Martha Marcy May Marlene still have their hooks in me almost a week after our screening. Lacking all vanity and testing the limits of your sympathy, Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as the multi-tilted character was a revelation. Sean Durkin’s well crafted script along with his direction skillfully blurs the lines between Martha’s past in a rural cult and her present struggle to readjust to life with her sister kept me constantly on edge, while feeling oddly comforted knowing I was on a clear path. In Martha Marcy May Marlene I saw one of the most heartbreaking and real depictions of a woman without a home.
Elizabeth Olsen is almost too good in her lead performance. In early scenes, we react with compassion to her confused and wounded character as her odd behavior agitates her sister Lucy, played really well by Sarah Paulson. Martha has obviously undergone some sort of abuse- the details of which are chillingly revealed in flashbacks- yet she remains suspiciously silent about the details when prompted by her sister.
As we see more of the character in these opposing environments I started to notice and appreciate how similar Olsen reacts to things. She initially bristles at all invitations of community whether coming from her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) or the earnest cult companions. John Hawkes as the group’s leader Patrick constantly and fiercely chastises her to share herself and give in to the mores of the community. She’s criticized for acting against the “rules” of both communities. It occurred to me that this woman really has no place in the world. The middle class comfort of her sister’s life disgusts her, while the spare, communal life strains her freedom and compromises her flimsy, but present moral conscience. Olsen really is none of the identities listed in the title, but someone utterly unknown by everyone around her. That quality makes her performance both pitiable and frightening.
The most powerful aspect of the film for me was the portrait of sisterhood in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Compared to life in eerie and exploitative cult, I sighed with relief when Durkin turned the dial of the narrative back to Martha’s life with Lucy and Ted. They seemed to offer troubled Martha the space, comfort, and protection she needed. However, as the strains in Martha and Lucy’s relationship pushed their way to the surface, I started to worry these two sisters would tear each other apart. Lucy’s judging gaze betrayed her disappointment and depleted patience with languid Martha. In return, Martha meets Lucy’s every action and gesture with contempt for her lifestyle and some unspoken act of neglect too long past, but too deep to possibly forgive. These two sisters are each other’s only family, but are complete strangers. The film gives no easy answers, yet prevents us from blaming either party.
When the film abruptly ends, I had the lingering feeling that I would probably not be able to shake John Hawkes’ steely stare from my mind’s eye, but Martha’s vacant stare, absent of feeling, concern, or awareness of who or where she was would be the enduring image haunting my nightmares.
Martha Marcy May Marlene comes out October 21st