First-time director Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is perhaps one of the most terrifying films to never come out and label itself as a horror film. Or at least that’s the case for the final few minutes of this Sundance Film Festival award winner, which will leave its audience with a lingering feeling of dread that just may follow them out of the theater and into their homes.
Up until its end, the film is shrouded in ambiguity, and only the simplest synopsis should be given to maintain the air of mystery that surrounds Durkin’s intricate tale. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a distraught woman in her early 20s who escapes from an abusive cult in the opening moments of the film.
After she places a call to her distant and wealthy sister, Lucy, (Sarah Paulson), Martha is put into the care of the only surviving member of her immediate family. Martha begins to piece the past two years of her life together, from the brutal and scarring sexual acts committed against her by a cult leader named Patrick (John Hawkes) to her ever-present fear that someone is watching her.
Lucy and her husband, Ted, (Hugh Dancy) attempt to integrate Martha into their family, but the questions and unspoken words that surround Martha’s two-year disappearance begin to provide them with plenty of tension and familial discourse.
As evident from the plot description above, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a bitter cinematic pill to swallow, but that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Where many films would offer simple answers to the mysteries posed at the start, “Martha” seems content to allow its viewers to revel in the puzzle-like memories laid before it by the titular character and develop resolutions based on the evidence presented to them.
Olsen provides an astonishingly assured performance for an actress making her feature debut, and is supported by a well-rounded cast that includes an equally assured and memorable performance by “Winter’s Bone” actor Hawkes. Hawkes, who received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in “Winter’s Bone,” brings to “Martha” the same intensity and dedication he put forth in the earlier film.
As cult leader Patrick, Hawkes often plays the character as a charismatic and engaging individual who you would love to talk to, but can flip the switch to a murderous individual who’s more Charles Manson than Jason Voorhees in a moment, and is perhaps just as chilling, too.
Durkin, who makes his cinematic debut along with Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” crafts one of those rare debuts that plays like a director who’s helmed this complex, but wholly engaging, storytelling numerous times before. It falls into the category of Duncan Jones’ 2010 sci-fi picture “Moon” or even Richard Ayoadae’s current film “Submarine,” as the sign of an auteur who knows how to manipulate an audience with all the storytelling devices made available to them.
It surely won’t come as a surprise if “Martha Marcy May Marlene” joins the ranks of fellow independent films such as “Winter’s Bone” in getting multiple nominations come awards season, as the film is already garnering significant praise for Olsen, Durkin and Hawkes. Yet, what is most important is once the awards-season glory fades, the film resonates with its viewers, and “Martha” certainly accomplishes that.
Olsen shot the film in two separate weeks, one for each of the film’s two locations, and she hadn’t seen how the two meshed on screen together until watching it at Sundance. Olsen said in an interview with The Oracle that it wasn’t until Cannes Film Festival in France that she had the opportunity to watch her first time on screen from an objective point of view.
“At Sundance, it was very confusing to watch the movie because it was also my first time seeing myself on screen, so I just associated each scene with the day spent on set shooting it,” she said. “Though, when I got to see it at Cannes, that was my first chance to distance myself from it. That’s when I realized it’s so interesting to watch and you have to see it more than once.”
Olsen said she believes repeat viewings are key and ultimately shed some light on the film’s seemingly incoherent timeline.
“It is so smart, and there are so many things hidden and framed specifically with all of the film’s mysteries in mind, that you won’t be able to capture it on a first watch.”
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Tampa Theatre.