“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a haunting drama from writer- director Sean Durkin, is not an easy film to swallow. Indeed, the crowd at a screening I attended was quite vocal about its disdain for the movie. Amidst booing, I heard the phrases “waste of time” and “worst movie ever” uttered by multiple audience members. While I can understand this reaction, I certainly don’t agree with it.
The film takes patience to enjoy and avoids offering easy resolutions to the issues at hand. It has a grim tone and a somewhat languid pace. All of which could easily be found off-putting, but Elizabeth Olsen’s commanding, grounded performance successfully guides viewers through the story.
Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who flees the compound of an abusive cult, where she lived for an unstated amount of time. In an attempt to re-assimilate into her previous life, Martha moves in with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, also great) and brother- in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy).
Durkin’s screenplay skillfully cuts between present-day scenes and flashbacks to Martha’s life with the cult, led by the menacing Patrick (a commanding, creepy performance from John Hawkes). These shifts in time effectively illustrate the hope and dread that Martha feels as she struggles to recover.
Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” has a beauty to it that can’t be attributed to one source. The performances, direction and writing each come close to perfection. For better or worse, the film’s mood is infectious, maintaining a measured sense of dread through the bold, thought- provoking final scene.