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With: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Christopher Abbott, Michael Chmiel, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause, Diana Masi, Allen McCullough, Adam David Thompson
Written by: Sean Durkin
Directed by: Sean Durkin
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language
Running Time: 120
Date: 01/21/2011
IMDB

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cult Classy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Elizabeth Olsen may be known as the younger sister of the twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who became a brand-name and a marketing force. Thankfully Elizabeth has taken another route, becoming an actual actress. And if her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene is any indication, she's a good one.

The title of the new movie is a mouthful of "M's," but to put it simply, it features two intertwining storylines. The first follows Martha (Olsen) as she joins a bizarre cult in the Catskill Mountains. The cult's mysterious and charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) renames her "Marcy May" and proceeds to bend her will toward the cult's simple, strict ways. These involve unsolicited sex (very close to rape), and guns.

In the second storyline, which actually begins the film, Martha escapes the cult and moves in with her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her sister's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha is now distant and constantly looking over her shoulder, perhaps terrified of some unknown repercussions. As a result, the sisterly bond is stretched to a breaking point.

Incidentally, the third name, "Marlene," is a kind of connector between the two worlds, even though it's only heard briefly, twice.

This is the feature writing and directing debut of Sean Durkin, and he has already demonstrated a very basic, but very rare skill: he doesn't tell the audience every little thing. The movie is half over before anyone actually mentions out loud that Martha and Lucy are sisters, rather than cousins or old acquaintances, but we can assume so. The movie keeps your brain alive and hopping, gathering bits of information, looking to piece clues together, and all at a speed agreed upon between filmmaker and viewer.

Durkin provides a kind of moody, dreamy feel, eschewing commentary on cults, or realism, or red herrings. The movie simply unfolds in moments. In both segments, Martha is merely watching as time goes by. She never appears fully grounded in either world, perhaps looking for something that has elements of both. Even after she has been fully indoctrinated into the cult, she gives a tour to a newcomer, uttering some of the same talking points that she has previously heard. Her voice is calm, but it's not exactly confident; it's as if she doesn't really buy it.

But in her sister's materialistic world, she doesn't fully buy anything either. The only thing that feels right to her is swimming in the nearby lake, but Lucy forbids Martha to swim nude. It's a fairly pessimistic movie on the surface, but Olsen's performance is so subtle that her aching need is apparent, and it draws us in. By the movie's ambiguous ending, it looks as if Martha may have some hope, one way or the other.

Fox has released a great looking Blu-Ray, preserving the uniquely grayish look of this mesmerizing movie. One good extra is a 13-minute short film that director Sean Durkin made prior to the feature. The other extras are official studio items, lasting about 3 or 4 minutes apiece, including the "making of" featurette. There's also a music video with John Hawkes' song, and trailers.

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