Critics are overly kind to film debuts; but niceties aside, Martha Marcy May Marlene (the tongue-twisting title of the year) introduces us to two formidable talents that will not be denied. Freshman writer-director Sean Durkin constructs a psychological thriller with delicate weaves of slow-motion storytelling. In someone else's hands, the film might plod--here the mystery builds with unspoken tension.
But the real news is the debut of Elizabeth Olsen. When you first spot her, you have the eerie sensation that you've seen her previously. Where might have you seen those lovely saucer eyes before? She is none other than the younger sister of the billionaire twin prodigies Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. But their junior sibling shares none of their ridiculous mugging from their Full House days. Instead, Elizabeth is haunting and, all around, pretty tremendous.
Olsen's co-star John Hawkes helped usher another unknown, Jennifer Lawrence, to stardom and an Academy Award nomination in last year's Winter's Bone. Hawkes (also Oscar nominated last year), is a wonder. His performances get better which each film. His craggy, wiry, but always intriguing persona is note-perfect for Martha Marcy May Marlene. He plays Patrick, a sensual, charismatic but terrifying cult leader who instantly lays claim to Martha soon after she stumbles upon his upstate New York compound. Hawkes' resemblance to Charles Manson is not accidental casting.
"You look like a Marcy May," says Patrick, rechristening her as his own.
Patrick rapes all of the cult's females, claiming, "we all love each other," but takes a unique shine to Martha, singing creepy songs of adoration to her in front of others. All the while, the cult's young males mysteriously disappear to carry out assigned acts of off-screen violence.
The cult scenes alternate with Martha's "normalcy," where she escapes to the open arms of her estranged sister Lucy (in a great performance by Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha is in constant search for a comfort she will never find, thanks in large part to her cult-damaged soul. In one particularly jaw-dropping moment, Martha curls up on the floor at the foot of a bed in which Lucy and Ted are making love. In fact, Martha has escaped one hell only to fall into another, this time manufactured by her nightmares.
The final act of Martha Marcy May Marlene is pretty scary stuff, but not in a traditional sense. Bone-rattling fears emanate from what is implied vs. what is shown on screen. An open-ended conclusion might frustrate some but its effect is lasting and chill-inducing. My best advice if you see this film (and I'm hoping you do) is to take a jacket.