Sean Durkin's powerful debut feature has Park City buzzing about this year's breakout star Elizabeth Olsen. Younger sister of famous twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, Elizabeth has separated herself from her familial relations with a pair of strong performances at Sundance 2011. (She also stars in Silent House, a "single take" thriller from the same couple who directed Open Water, but I wasn't able to attend that movie.) In Martha Marcy May Marlene, she plays a girl who has gone by all of the names in the title at various points in her life; the story takes place during a three week period after Martha breaks out of an abusive cult.
Olsen deserves all the acclaim she's receiving for her performance here; she's superb, and she convincingly takes the audience on a journey of shattered memories and paranoia as we start to experience her recovery along with her. The editing of this movie was gimmicky - it cross cuts between Martha's present time living with her sister and her sister's husband, and flashbacks of her cult life - but the transitions between the two time periods are very well done. Normally I'd see a technique like this as being a bit too contrived, but Durkin's writing and direction make the cross cuts feel like an organic progression.
Academy Award Nominee (the nominations came in this morning) John Hawkes was phenomenal; like The Ledge's Patrick Wilson has a lock on the creepy suburban archetype, Hawkes has playing the backwoods patriarch down to a science. He also gets to show off a bit of his musical skill set, playing guitar and singing the disquieting "Marcy's Song" in the movie. He's alternatingly charismatic and horrifying, much like Michael Parks' cult leader figure in Kevin Smith's Red State. He gives the girls who come to his commune new names to separate them from their past, and builds their self-confidence by essentially brainwashing them into servitude (sexual and otherwise).
Durkin opts for long takes of dialogue to allow his actors some breathing room, which works to great effect nearly every time. However, the film did drag in certain places and occasionally Durkin is content with building atmosphere instead of progressing the narrative. We don't ever learn why Martha went to the commune in the first place, which seems like a necessary component that was hanging over the entire film, waiting to be revealed. It's a detail that should have been addressed in the flashbacks, and it's an important character moment we're never privy to in an otherwise exhausting look at the psychology of this broken character. There are a few scenes that aren't particularly easy to watch, but I liked the film and think it's worth seeing. Martha Marcy May Marlene was just picked up by Fox Searchlight, so you'll be able to see it when it gets released (hopefully) later this year.