MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)
As Elizabeth Olsen is soon to hit summer screens in Gareth Edward’s Godzilla and then again in summer 2015 as Wanda Maximoff AKA The Scarlet Witch in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron, I thought I’d take a look back at the film that first brought her acting talents to my attention…
Intriguing indie film tells the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who flees a cult-like commune and goes to live with her yuppie sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). The more Martha attempts to escape the negative effects of her life with the commune, the more the unpleasant memories begin to tear her apart and make her question her safety and sanity. She is constantly looking over her shoulder expecting ‘them’ to come for her. Are they?…or is it the product of a paranoid and emotionally scarred mind?
I liked Martha, but wasn’t blown away by it. It is a well directed drama working, for the most part, with subtleties and a really strong performance from Olsen. Only occasionally do we get a brief moment of violence or intense drama, but most of the time, the film maintains a slow burn. And this serves the story well, as the narrative switches between the present and flashbacks of Martha’s increasingly unhappy time with the commune and it’s smolderingly psychotic leader, Patrick (played with a quiet menace by John Hawkes). The performances are all very good with Olsen effectively portraying an emotionally confused and damaged young woman wanting to feel normal, but,who can’t forget what she’s experienced. With all writer/director Sean Durkin gets right, there is something missing that keeps one from getting really involved in Martha’s emotional plight. Maybe it’s the character’s emotional distance that keeps us from embracing her drama. Martha is a guarded person and she keeps us out just as much as her sibling. We see her ordeal in flashbacks, where we find out about some of the horrible experiences she was forced to partake in or witness, such as rape, robbery and murder, while living with Patrick and his people, but the character’s reluctance to reach out to those around her, keeps our emotional investment at a distance, just as her refusal to come clean and tell her sister everything, keeps Lucy and Ted in the dark. Maybe it’s also because her self-absorbed sister and husband don’t evoke our sympathy, either. They are more concerned with their own lives and Martha is more of an inconvenience to them than a relative in need of help and care. The lack of any real communication between them get’s frustrating at times. It’s also possible the problem is simply because the story never comes to a satisfying conclusion, or gives us any real dramatic payoff. And that’s what hurts this fine effort the most. After watching this tormented woman for over an hour and a half we are left with an ambiguous climax that only serves to make us ask ourselves “what was the point?”.
I still would recommend this to those who like something a bit offbeat and prefer a little ambiguity and certainly to see Miss Olsen show us she’s got some real acting chops, but don’t expect to be blown away like some of the initial hype led us to believe we would.