And so now we know where all the talent in the Olsen family went.
Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, shouldn’t have to live with that introducing qualifier any longer after her debut performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene sent notices of arrival throughout the world of film.
Olsen is the Martha in Sean Durkin’s impressive directorial film, a paranoia-driven psychological thriller centered on the fragile mind of a girl recently free of an abusive and controlling cult trying to return to a typical life with her sister in her lake-side rental house in Connecticut.
While Durkin’s film mostly plays things by the books, I found it utterly impressive in a number of ways. Its narrative style is example number one for me. While it certainly isn’t the first film to distort a timeline and advance story with flashbacks and memories, I thought it was particularly useful and impressive in Martha Marcy May Marlene.
What we’re observing here is the damaged psyche of a young girl fresh off an escape from a cult. Now living with her sister and her boyfriend, she tries to assimilate to their style of everyday life. Outside of the film’s opening moments, we never live within the cult’s walls in the present time. Instead, Durkin places us into the memories and nightmares of Martha’s disturbed and frightened mine. What’s clever about Durkin’s method is that he often matches moments in the present to moments in the past that share something that would obviously spark Martha’s paranoid delusions and memories. In some cases the editing is so seamless it feels that the two moments in time live among each other – which for Martha, is actually the case.
Olsen’s performance is simply captivating. It ranges from subtle, nuanced actions to full-on hysterical freak outs. She plays the damaged, disturbed victim almost too well for a debut performance. Of course, Olsen (and the entire film) was ignored by the Academy (Hey, Meryl Streep needed another nomination), but I haven’t seen many better female performances from 2011 than this one. Olsen now becomes her own – no longer a younger sister of Full House‘s once cute Mary-Kate and Ashley – she is a budding star capable of putting forth powerful and layered performances.
Also ignored is John Hawkes, who plays Patrick, the cult’s terrifying leader. Hawkes did get an Oscar nomination last year for his equally crazed and disturbing performance in Winter’s Bone, but I can’t help but think he deserved another nod at best supporting actor with this chilling and downright hypnotizing performance. He almost persuaded me to join the cult. Ever since Deadwood Hawkes has been one of my favorite actors and lately he’s been given the roles to showcase his range. Oh, and he can sing! One of the film’s most chilling scenes is his rendition of Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Marcy’s Song,’ dedicated to Martha, who Patrick thinks looks like a Marcy May.
Durkin’s film lives inside the mind of Martha. Because of that, we as viewers know more than Martha’s sister Lucy, who is trying her best to understand Martha and what troubles her. I love this. It also introduces the possibility of a falty narrator. While it doesn’t seem likely that it’s the case with Martha, it adds a dynamic to the story. Because we don’t live in the cult’s present moments, we see it as she remembers it.
And getting back to the narrative, we see how each memory of the cult impacts Martha’s clearly fragile mind. We see how event A leads to event B and so on. Durkin’s composure in constructing the details of the narrative plays into this. It shows it as it is. There’s no quick fix, there’s hardly any important and outstanding moments that serve as a peak to Martha’s problem. How easy would it be to turn this into some kind of “Hey let’s find the cult!” story? Durkin instead serves to showcase the damaged female mind, the result of a male-led and male-dominated cult that’s basis for existence was co-existence and being part of the team (sexually). I can only raise a glass to this kind of restraint.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of my favorite films of 2011. Certainly not the best, but it has so much going for it thanks to the impressive debut performance by Olsen and Durkin’s impressive writing and directorial debut. Track this one down, it will hopefully serve as where two great careers began.