"Martha Marcy May Marlene": All the a-star-is-born talk about it is true. Elizabeth Olsen, the Olsen sister you've never heard of, makes her feature film debut, leaping over her older twin siblings to become Hollywood's latest darling.
In "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Olsen plays the title role -- a beautiful, damned young woman, whose radiant, upturned face becomes a kind of Broken Madonna and who falls into the clutches of a rural cult. The film, written and directed by talented newcomer Sean Durkin, a 29-year-old member of a NYU-graduates film collective, is an astute psychological thriller.
Martha is a tall, open, not-quite innocent in opening scenes, who fecklessly falls in with a rural extended "family" led by the charismatic, slightly built bearded creep Patrick (a scary John Hawkes).
To remain a member, the men and women have to abide by Patrick's rules of living, some of them simple enough. Others are more diabolical and involve the systematic sexual abuse of new female members abetted by the "initiated" and sexually abused women in the cult.
This being rural America, specifically upstate New York, guns play a role. Occasionally, Patrick and his followers break into lavish vacation homes built by rich, urban types, who almost laughably have no clue what horrors lurk behind their high-priced views.
At times, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" plays like an American version of a film by Bavarian prince of darkness Michael Haneke ("Cache," "Funny Games," "The White Ribbon"). In one sequence, Martha is an accomplice in a home invasion that gets horribly out of control. These scenes are flashbacks from the "present" in which Martha has escaped and been reunited with her sister Lucy (a terrific Sarah Paulson) and her high-ratcheted husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy and Ted are New Yorkers with a weekend home in Connecticut who are trying to conceive.
In these scenes, Martha appears to be in wild-child mode, stripping down to skinny-dip in full view of her brother-in-law and neighbors. In an even more disturbing moment, spaced-out Martha crawls into bed with Lucy and Ted, while they are having sex. The truth about Martha is that she has been thoroughly "broken" by Patrick and the cult, and the psycho cult leader is not likely to allow Martha simply to walk away. Besides, she was also a witness to incriminating acts.
Durkin has taken a page out of American history, where the names Charles Manson, Jim Jones and David Koresh are written in blood and fire, and created a film about youth and individual will. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" resonates with anyone who feels like damaged goods. It's about the things you can't undo or escape, and it's a surprisingly haunting and insightful first feature.
("Martha Marcy May Marlene" contains nudity, sexually suggestive scenes, profanity and violence.)
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