Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight, R)

film martha-marcy smElizabeth Olsen gives an astounding performance. At times, she is so subtle you may not even realize that she is acting.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film that will divide audiences. The title alone will surely put off a large number of people. It is slow, and challenging, and most people don’t like to be challenged when they go to the movies. Those who do will find this a rewarding experience. The film tells of a girl (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call her Martha) who is an active member of a small cult, until one day she runs away. Martha goes to stay with her sister and her sister’s husband at their vacation home in the woods. There she struggles to be rejoin normal society, and becomes increasingly paranoid that members of the cult are after her.

I say the film is slow, but that word has a negative connotation. The film moves at a deliberate pace. We are never told anything. We simply observe, picking up small clues as we go. For example, we see how new members of the cult have their names subtly changed (Martha becomes Marcy May) to remove them from their past lives. Her time in the cult is shown in flashbacks. Most people would not question the motives of someone fleeing a cult, but if anyone did, their questions would be sufficiently answered. While “not much happens” in the traditional sense, there is an underlying tension, which builds throughout the film, so that you never feel completely at ease.

Martha is played by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, who gives an astounding performance. At times, she is so subtle you may not even realize that she is acting. While we are glad to see her out of the cult, we also see that she still believes in some of its principles. To her, her sister’s life seems as bizarre as her former life seems to us. She plays that dichotomy very well, and keeps us invested throughout the film’s running time.

The leader of the cult, Patrick, is played by John Hawkes, who got a lot of attention for his work in a similar film, Winter’s Bone. This performance has been compared to the work of Michael Parks in Kevin Smith’s Red State, but they are completely different. Parks plays his cult leader as a stern preacher whose finest moment is when he delivers an extended sermon to his followers. Hawkes is much more quiet. His role is that of a loving father, who seems like a pretty good guy until he quietly, and without any sign of emotion, shows himself to be truly evil. Both performances are effective, but Parks wouldn’t have worked in this film; Patrick needed to be played the way Hawkes plays him.

I’m trying to avoid giving away certain details of this film. I feel that the less you know going in, the better your experience will be. As I said, this is a divisive film. Most members of my audience were confused when it ended. For those of us who enjoy that type of thing, this is a film to cherish and love. It left my head spinning, and I imagine I will want to see it again, to see what little things I missed. Personally, I preferred it to Winter’s Bone, and I expect it will stick with me for quite some time. | Sean Lass 

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