Martha Marcy Mae Marlene examines depth of human psyche

A young and inexperienced cast can sometimes be the downfall of a film. Martha Marcy Mae Marlene stars 22-year-old Elizabeth Olsen, up and coming Hollywood “It Girl” and younger sibling of the famous Mary-Kate and Ashley, who has appeared in only a handful of films to date.

However, Olsen’s inexperience proves not to be a hindrance in her portrayal of Martha, a young girl who suffers from delusions and paranoia when she returns to her family after escaping life with an abusive cult. Olsen delivers a shockingly raw and complex performance, as the film documents her inner turmoil and its exterior manifestations as she struggles to reintegrate into society following her life with the cult.

The film opens to a scene in which Martha, clad in cut-off jeans and a sweatshirt, sneaks from the commune and through a forest during the early hours of the morning until she reaches town. In town, she enters a diner, where she is accosted by a young man who forcefully suggests that she return to the house with him. Instead, Martha makes a panicked phone call to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom it is later revealed she hasn’t seen or spoken to in years.

Lucy comes to pick her up, bringing Martha to a lake house to stay with her and her English architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy.) Though her sister is led to believe Martha has been living with a boyfriend whom she decided to leave, the film reveals episodes of Martha’s cult life through flashbacks and dreams. Eventually, Martha begins to display difficulty in discerning real life from her memories, causing several hysteric episodes.

The success of Martha Marcy Mae Marlene can be greatly accredited to the artful cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes and the skilled direction of first-time writer-director Sean Durkin, who ensures an authentic and sympathetic view of the process of becoming involved in a cult. Furthermore, a stellar performance by Academy Award-nominated John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as the cult patriarch Patrick captures the manipulation and charisma utilized by such figures, revealing much about the dynamic of cult life.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes is one in which Hawkes performs a rendition of a song for Olsen’s character called “Marcy Song” singing, “she’s just a picture, lives on my wall.” Sitting on a stool with a guitar, his skinny frame clad in jeans and a white tank top, Hawkes here most clearly communicates the darkness and depth of his character, as he appears both deeply intense and fragile. Durkin discovered the song, written by 60s folk singer Jackson Frank, when looking for songs which included the names of characters in the film.

An equally stirring scene in the film documents the ritual drugging and rape of the young girls who have recently joined the cult, preceded by Patrick’s explanation to them that everything in the commune is “theirs to share.”

Martha is distraught after her own initiation, but following a conversation with a friend, seems convinced that she is lucky to have had such a meaningful interaction with the cult’s leader, saying, “I’d give anything to have my first time again.”

Later in the film, Martha assists another girl following her own initiation, referred to as a “cleansing,” showing the deterioration of her own morals and convictions during her time with the cult.

Though Martha Marcy Mae Marlene provides a dark insight into a life that most of us are content to know little about, the film is a beautiful examination of human emotions and the complexities of a damaged soul. The film was awarded the directing prize at the Sundance film festival this year and is likely to be a strong contender come Oscar season.

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