Sean Durkin’s feature length directorial debut is truly an astounding work of haunting beauty and standout performances. Based on a short film the director earlier created, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a wholly impressive work: visceral and terrifying, Durkin’s film at times strays into the horror genre, so unbearable are the events of the narrative.
Martha (an assured Elizabeth Olsen) has not made contact with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for two years: this absence ends when a hysterical Martha calls. Lucy takes Martha back home with her, inviting her to stay with her and her newly-wedded husband in their large, spacious, overtly luxurious home. Martha explains her absence through vaguely referring to a boyfriend she lived with in the Catskills. Lucy initially has little reason to doubt Martha’s version of events, until Martha’s increasingly odd and eventually frenzied behaviour is made all-too-apparent. Martha seems to hold little inhibitions, struggling to understand Lucy’s remonstrations after she opts to swim publicly nude.
As flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative reveal, Martha has not simply escaped from a broken relationship, but instead a sinister ‘community’ preying on the young and vulnerable. This community, led by Patrick (a terrifying John Hawkes), rename each of their new members, clearly as a means of removing both their identity and displacing their past: Martha is thus renamed Marcy May. As Marcy May, Martha is subjected to truly horrific actions: once she has reasserted herself as Martha again, living with her sister, the memories of the actions plague her, lying latent in her memory, they can be triggered at any moment.
Durkin’s film is a confident, flawlessly executed work, with an utterly absorbing narrative. Martha asks Lucy if she ever struggles in differentiating reality from imagined memory, clearly indicating to the viewer Martha’s unreliability as well as her increasing paranoia. Elizabeth Olsen has been shrewd in her choice of role; Martha could not be further away from the teen-friendly fare peddled by her older well-known siblings. In portraying Martha, Elizabeth Olsen has not only indicated her intelligence in choosing her material, but demonstrates a wonderfully mature performance in a complex role. John Hawkes is once again on fine form, his character Patrick often works as a crueller, more depraved version of his Teardrop in Winter’s Bone: but whilst we can never be sure of Teardrop’s character, Hawkes ensures that Patrick’s manipulative, twisted quality is clear to see.
The film is not without its flaws, largely in the characterisation of Lucy and her husband: their lack of real understanding seems almost callous at times, often unbelievably so. Despite acknowledging Martha’s disturbed nature, they fail to truly engage. Despite this, Durkin’s film is hugely impressive: a truly mesmerising debut.