Elizabeth Olsen astonishes in her feature film debut as a troubled young woman in writer-director Sean Durkin’s dark, psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Elizabeth Olsen turned more than a few heads in 2012. Her breathtaking feature film debut performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene proved to be no flash in the pan following further acclaim for Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts. Her portrayal of a mentally scarred young woman struggling to find common ground in the relative conventionality of her maternal older sister’s loving care is staggering in its emotional intensity. To reveal much more about the plot would dilute the unnerving, skin-crawling nightmare that unravels in writer-director Sean Durkin’s film. It begins like all dreams: confusing, curiously fascinating, unclear and far away; before spiralling uncontrollably into darkness. We’re bullied awake; sweaty, a scream caught in the throat, the bed sheets soaked with fear.
Like the confusing nature of dreams, time seems not to exist. Martha Marcy May Marlene almost seamlessly intertwines the title character’s inability to conform to her older sister’s maternal care with her life away from the family over the course of two previous years. In this “missing” period of time we are privy to the events that prove the catalyst to her mental instability. A bright, beautiful but impressionable and vulnerable young woman is drawn into a world that promotes freedom from the world’s social, moral and political codes in favour of simpler pleasures under the cloak of much darker aspiration. It is an alternate family from the one she has known and, through Martha’s unavoidable recollection, paints a counter balancing picture of togetherness, love, friendship, fear, sex, endeavour and ambition. It is certainly unsettling and draws us further into this girl’s diminishing psyche.
“Elizabeth Olsen displays Martha’s inner conflict with surreptitious, mature complexity. She has an ethereal presence that saddens, infuriates, arouses, moves; you simply can’t take your eyes off her.”
Central to the film’s appeal is of course Elizabeth Olsen. The younger sister of fellow actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen depicts a fragility that invites the attentions of those that simultaneously try to help and break her. In a word she’s captivating. The ambiguous nature of the film, both in its character dynamics and story progression, ensures when one question becomes clearer another develops just as fast. Olsen’s Martha is an enigma, drawing both contempt towards her actions and sympathy. The actress displays the character’s inner conflict with surreptitious, mature complexity. She has an ethereal presence that saddens, infuriates, arouses, moves; you simply can’t take your eyes off her.
Although I felt the film left too many questions to be answered, it has an indefinable, intangible quality that stays with you. It begs to be interpreted in a unique way by each member of the audience and its lack of clarity in plot and character bolsters this. Indeed, if I consider the dream analogy, or should I say nightmare, we can only decide for ourselves whether Martha wakes up or is trapped in it forever.
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy
Released: 2011 / Genre: Psychological Drama / Country: USA / IMDB