Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson

Look past the frankly awful title of this low-budget psychological drama and you’ll be rewarded with a deeply unsettling yet riveting study of vulnerability and emotional damage.

Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, a young woman with a difficult upbringing who becomes part of a mysterious and intimidating cult. After two years she flees and the film is told in flashbacks as she struggles to return to reality at the luxury home of her well-meaning but dismissive sister (Paulson) and polite, yet frustrated brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy).

The film’s strengths lie in its ambiguity. The details of the cult are deliberately left vague and we are left guessing how Martha becomes involved with it. It is led by Patrick (Hawkes in a creepy, unhinged performance), a man adored and revered by his followers. They live under one roof, attempt to be self-sufficient, and share jobs, clothes and beds. They are, in the most twisted sense of the word, a family.
There is no need to know the intricacies of Patrick’s cult - the film is a study of the emotional impact it has on Martha.

If there is any justice, this should be a star-making turn for Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), who fascinates in a distant and paranoid performance. Martha’s erratic behaviour and her struggle to reconcile with her sister often makes for uncomfortable viewing, but the convincing relationship between Olsen and Poulson will leave you captivated.

The film is not for the faint of heart, particularly as Martha’s flashbacks become increasingly sinister. It is rarely explicit, but the sparse but intelligent use of sound and imagery gives a sense of impending fear and danger.

Martha’s bleak situation makes it hard to call this enjoyable film, but this impressive psychological drama will leave you more unsettled than most horror films ever could.

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