Making her feature film debut (and proving there is some acting talent in the Olsen gene pool after all) Elizabeth Olsen anchors this quietly devastating exploration of a damaged young woman.
Shying away from the tween friendly Mary-Kate and Ashley multi-billion dollar brand as far as possible, Olsen stars as the eponymous heroine; a recent escapee from a self-sufficient cult controlled by the menacing Patrick (John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone). We first see her as she escapes from the farm where the cult is situated, as fellow cult members enter the woods, racing after her and crying out “Marcy May!” – a name we will quickly learn was given to her by Patrick as a way of divorcing her from her previous life. Her given name is Martha and she makes it in to town. She’s distressed and frightened but manages to call her sister Lucy who comes and picks the shaken young Martha/Marcy May up. The film is then, essentially, Martha trying to mentally escape the cult and "Marcy May".
The narrative plays out across two timelines: Martha recuperating at the newlywed Lucy's (Sarah Paulsen in a rare dramatic role) summer house with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and Marcy May's life in the cult. This chronological cross-cutting lends the film a unique tension as events in the past lead to echoes in the present. Hawkes is a wiry and
intense presence as the calm but twisted cult leader, sensing the kids'
vulnerability and using it to control them. Martha is an obviously lost soul before she even stumbles into life in the cult and post-escape she is a fragile, volatile presence in her sister's and husband's lives. She's almost naive about the world again, no longer conforming to societal norms as she has lived apart from it for so long. Olsen is the centre of the entire film; the fulcrum around which everything else turns and she totally owns it. It is a raw, uncompromising role and Olsen is quietly brave without being flashy or "actorly" and you can't help but feel concern for this damaged and used girl.
Director Sean Durkin lets the film take its time playing out; allowing the horror of Martha's experience soak into you, teasing backstory and details out and building the tension between the sisters as Lucy and Ted struggle to deal with the changed Martha. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an understated film, working its way under your skin and is the type of film that sits with you for awhile afterwards. An impressive, deftly handled debut feature film from Durkin and quite the announcement for Elizabeth Olsen.