Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene is about a young woman (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who flees a sinister cult based on a rundown farm in America's Catskill Mountains. Writer-director Sean Durkin’s feature debut, it won the Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes in 2011. It’s ‘remarkably assured’ and Olsen is ‘a revelation’, said Wendy Ide, writing in The Times. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers concurred that Olsen is 'an actress of uncommon subtlety and feeling. It's a sensational performance in a gripping psychological thriller.'

The younger sister of actress-celebrity twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, Elizabeth Olsen is making her big-screen debut as the eponymous Martha. Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) provides a refuge for her at her luxurious lakeside home where it becomes apparent that she is very damaged. Lucy and her British architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) try to coax the truth about what has happened out of the jittery girl but she rebuffs all inquiries and merely alludes to a failed relationship.

Gradually, disturbing flashbacks reveal the truth of her ordeal to the audience. What started off as a troubled teen’s innocent desire to join the commune's surrogate family and apparent utopia led to a chillingly abusive relationship with charismatic and manipulative cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes, an Oscar-nominee for 2010’s Winter’s Bone).

Patrick renaming her Marcy May (hence the film’s title) was the first step towards stripping Martha of her sense of self. Brainwashing – and sexual “cleansing” – ensured she and the other members were complicit in the cult’s disturbing activities.

Yet her sister’s sanctuary jars as the bourgeois trappings (speedboat, state-of-the-art kitchen) are at odds with the non-materialistic life on the farm. Moreover Patrick continues to exert his malign influence on Martha’s vulnerable mind, and a growing sense of unease develops.

While still writing the script for this film, in 2010 Durkin shot Mary Last Seen, also about cults, for just $400. Starring Brady Corbet (who also appears in this film), it went on to win the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Short Film Prize.


Martha Marcy May Marlene


‘It’d be easy enough to say this is a drama about the destructive power of cults on youth, which it is, but really what writer-director Sean Durkin has given us is an existential thriller about identity and just how tenuous a grasp we have on who we really are.’



Debut director Sean Durkin's subtle thriller is restrained and nuanced. Vital details are deftly measured out to create impressions in the audience’s minds that we must work to disentangle, just as the characters have to. Deliberately ambiguous, reflecting its protagonist’s disorientation, it’s a movie with ‘no easy answers, nearly perfect in its imperfection' (Betsy Sharkey, the Los Angeles Times).

Appreciative critics have compared this delicately fluid chiller to the similarly disturbing work of Austrian director Michael Haneke, maker of Funny Games (1997). Like Haneke, Durkin ‘specialises not in apocalyptic grandeur but in the creak and the tinkle of the uncanny', observed Anthony Lane in the New Yorker.

Intriguingly, Brady Corbet, who played one of the nihilistic home invaders in the American remake of Funny Games (2007), appears here as Watts, one of the cult’s lieutenants.

As the movie cuts back and forth, the viewer is, like Martha, confused about where events are taking place. The film ‘impresses most in its ability to sustain a mood of quiet dread… the spell is transfixing’(David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter), mirroring the cult’s effect on Martha.

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes drew wide praise. His use of static close-ups and shadowy wide shots, plus frantic handheld camerawork, jitteringly evoke Martha's restless reality and fearful delusions. Lipes's 'exquisite widescreen lensing... fixes everything with a haunting arm’s-length stare', said Variety's Peter Debruge.

The seamless camerawork 'pitches the audience, along with Martha, from safety to nightmare in an eyeblink’, wrote Lisa Mullen in Sight & Sound. It ‘unblinkingly records Martha's deluded hope that somebody, somehow, might be able to see inside her head and find a way to help her.'

The film is ‘expertly crafted’ cinematic storytelling, in the view of Screen International's Anthony Kaufman. 'Not only are the frames exquisitely composed and highly deliberate in their choice of focus and depth, but the sound design and musical choices are equally bold, from a highly dissonant arrangement when Martha has a breakdown to ominous hums, percussive beats and the faint sounds of bees buzzing somewhere deep in the forest.'

Martha Marcy make believe

Unflinching newcomer Elizabeth Olsen is key to the success of Durkin's meditation on identity. She conveys Martha’s mix of vacuous naivety, post-traumatic stress and paranoia. As J Hoberman said in Village Voice, she ‘gives a superb performance, battling confusion, radiating anxiety and desperately asserting her beleaguered identity’.

‘Often using little more than the palpable unease in her eyes, she holds nothing back. Her Martha is both unsteadily secretive and an exposed mass of raw nerves’ (David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter).

Throwing the innocence of Martha into stark relief is John Hawkes's coldly calculating Patrick, a controlling rapist with the look of a feral, emaciated Sean Penn. 'Angular, sinewy Hawkes is a calmer, scarier version of the hillbilly meth monster with a heart he played in Winter's Bone,' said the Village Voice's J Hoberman.

The New Yorker's Anthony Lane described Hawkes as 'tautened... by a kind of electric wiriness in his frame and gaze. Like any good cult leader, he is a terrifying parody of a father figure.'

Breaking out

This film was produced by a small collective of film-makers working in collaboration. Its convoluted title suggests a conscious decision to resist a more commercial approach and stay within the confines of the indie and cult genres. Nevertheless it 'feels like a film that will fast-track several careers, notably those of its lead actress Elizabeth Olsen, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes – and Durkin himself,' concluded The Daily Telegraph's David Gritten.


Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha Marcy May Marlene

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