Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

First-time director Sean Durkin has created one of the year’s most beguiling films, which is not to say it is free of bewilderment.

MMMM is a moving portrait of the mental and emotional disintegration of a refugee from a rural “cult” of young people (mostly women) drawn into the clutches of an older, tyrannical male leader (John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone).

Elizabeth Olsen, in a razor-sharp performance of nuanced understatement, portrays Martha, the vulnerable victim. After two years as an incommunicado exile only a few hours away, Martha decides to call her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and flee the kinky and increasingly bizarre commune. A mutual detachment soon exists between the two that enables an utter lack of communication. Lucy walks on eggshells, merely tiptoeing around the subject of where the hell Martha has been and what happened that is making her act so strangely. Meanwhile Martha (Hawkes dubs her Marcy May) goes into a shell only to come out long enough to fantasize her disconcerting past at the farm. In the back and forth’s between Lucy and her husband’s dreamy Connecticut vacation house, and flashbacks to the Manson-like Hawkes’ bevy of prey, dream and reality begin to blur for her. The filmmaker’s restraint roller coasters from inertia to Martha’s unexpected outbursts and back again. Durkin sure knows how to edit. His juxtaposition of dream/fantasy sequences are jarringly smooth and coincide perfectly with Martha’s mind state to the point that the flashbacks feel more like daydreams and reality seems not really… all there.

Olson, only 22, is an actress to keep an eye on. The younger sister Of The Kate & Ashley Olsen twins, she eschewed child acting despite her proximity to opportunity. It wasn’t until a stint as an NYU theater major that she was ready to take it on and take it on she does. She dives into the character from the get go exposing herself, literally and metaphorically into a character that not many 22 year old actors can even begin to grasp. The nuanced acting, the details, the brilliant distance she creates is fascinating to watch and engulfing to the viewer.

You may complain about the film’s thwarting finale. But if you’re feeling cheated, you missed the whole point of the film. Durkin’s end is only to emphasize the point of what the film is truly about, paranoia. Not a slasher horror tale.

9 Utopias (out of 10)

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