Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has just escaped an abusive cult, one where she was known as Marcy May, and has moved in with her estranged sister and brother-in-law. Back in civilised society Martha struggles to escape the memories of her time with the cult and live with people who do not share the cult’s values or lack of boundaries.
With his debut as both writer and director Sean Durkin has made an impressive film, confidently shot without any flashy gimmicks. Durkin is happy to set up a few simple shots for a scene, allowing the camera to move and re-frame where necessary, letting his script and actors showcase his talent.
Elizabeth Olsen is superb as the once confident young woman, brutalised by her time being subtly manipulated by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Too often we have to wait years for a fresh new talent to finally find the right film to showcase their skill; Olsen has found it right away. John Hawkes is wonderfully creepy as Patrick, showing that certain combination of charisma and manipulation needed to make people follow you to the dark side. Sarah Paulson too has a layered character to play as Martha’s sister Lucy, forced to choose between caring for her sister and protecting her own family from this disruptive force.
Flashbacks and present day are blended so well that there is still one scene we cannot place in one definitive time frame, Martha is struggling to make sense of her world so we must too. As Martha’s mind is sucked back to her time in the cult we can see the subtle changes in her character and physicality and just why she is finding it so hard to live with normal people once more.
With Martha Marcy May Marlene centred on a woman haunted by memories of a horrific period in her past I can’t help but draw comparisons to We Need to Talk About Kevin. When put side by side it is Martha which comes out on top, a much simpler film without any visual gimmicks. Martha is also the more traumatic, the tension is just as present as in Kevin but without ever getting a proper release.
The film left us reeling and tense, not wanting to head out into the dark night outside so it was a relief to have a Q&A with the cast and crew afterwards. They were a charming, humble bunch whose friendly energy helped to relax the audience again. Sadly most audiences will just be thrown trembling into the real world after the credits roll.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is near perfect, just a few moments where the tension almost became tedium before something would happen to jolt us back onto the edges of our seats.
Martha screens again at the London Film Festival today and on Monday, worth a look as tickets are still available, then is released in UK cinemas on 3rd February 2012.