By Jamie Gildea
Martha Marcy May Marlene focuses on a girl who escapes from a cult commune in upstate New York after two years of sexual abuse, isolation and servitude to her captors. The film follows the thoughts of Martha, as she tries to readjust to normal life after living an existence that is simply unimaginable to the outside world. The part of Martha is played by Elizabeth Olsen (yes, the arguably more talented younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) in her film debut. It’s fair to say that her performance is somewhat of a surprise; she has taken on a tough role, stripped herself bare of any airs and simultaneously proved herself to be the powerful, energetic actress needed to do this story justice. This film is made even more intense and chilling as it has been written with the input of people with firsthand experience of cult upbringings.
Refreshingly, director Sean Durkin deliberately leaves certain questions unanswered to enhance the sense of obscurity and the unknown. There are around 20 people living within the confines of the commune yet we find out very little about them, we never find out how they are recruited and even more bizarrely the ultimate aim of the commune is left unclear; we are used to seeing cult type organisations using religion as a basis for their actions suggesting a sense of spiritual calling but in Martha Marcy May Marlene there is no such justification. The cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) is a rapist, a paedophile and is also charismatic, seductive and caring. This part is played so convincingly that the audience comprehends and sympathises with Martha and the rest of the family’s devotion towards their abuser completely. Possibly the most powerful quality a film can have is when it raises emotions you didn’t know you could feel. Martha Marcy May Marlene certainly does and this and it is in no small part down to Hawkes’s performance.
It’s not however just the story that makes Martha Marcy May Marlene an outstanding film; it is its artful presentation. The audience watch Martha’s past and present unfold simultaneously and seep into each other. A lot of the time the audience is even left unsure of where in time the film is, or even if it is reality or not. The film effortlessly blurs past and present; reality and dreamy hallucinations; rural cult existence or bourgeois lakeside lifestyle; the impact of this is beyond disconcerting. The camerawork is beautiful; the shots are long and hardly ever static, with only minimalist electronic music or silence as accompaniment.
In summary Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the most powerful and naturalistic thrillers I have ever seen; chilling and captivating from beginning to end.