‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ Review: Elizabeth Olsen’s Star-Making Thriller

  @MarkJohansonIBT on October 21 2011 5:07 PM

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Martha Marcy May Marlene may be one of the most ill-conceived titles of any film in 2011, but it's also the title of one of the year's best.

A hit at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the film would be highly unmarketable outside of the festival circuit were it not for the breakout performance of Elizabeth Olsen, the other Olsen sister.

Olsen is out to show the world that she is the premier product of the Hollywood family. The younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, 22-year-old Elizabeth feels a decade older than her sisters.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a statement: I am not my sisters; I will not follow my sisters' careers; You will be hearing more from me.

Elizabeth Olsen does owe her younger twin sisters a bit of gratitude. She got her first acting credits in The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley, a series of videos in the mid- 1990s. One could also argue that the relative nobody was only able to score a meaty leading role in feature film because of the likely buzz her last name would create.

Yet, watching the delightfully eerie film, it soon becomes clear that Olsen earned this part because, well, she's got the chops.

Elizabeth Olsen is soft, almost doughy. There is no trace of Mary-Kate and Ashley's patented smirkiness. The emotions sit on Elizabeth's face and slowly construct themselves in fascinating ways. She has an old spirit and wisdom beyond her years that plays right into her character in Martha.

The film oscillates back and forth between Martha's time on a farm in the Catskills, and a lakefront house in Connecticut. Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, the story shifts from the present day in Connecticut to the life Martha left behind in upstate New York.

Martha is gone for two years before calling her much older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help. Presumably, she has spent all of this time on the farm in the Catskills living with a small collection of disenfranchised twenty-somethings who are all under the sways of the farm collective's older leader Patrick (John Hawkes).

Initially, the cult seems wholesome and relatable, albeit incredibly methodical. There is no smoking or drinking, they enjoy nature, and live for the most part off of the land.

The film's first time director, Sean Durkin, does a nice job of creating a parallel between the lives of the collective and the lives of the upper-middle class sister and her husband (Hugh Dancy).

While Martha's first entrance into the sparkling summer home in Connecticut is jarring, the two worlds slowly become strikingly similar. Both groups are captured in the midst of an idle laziness. Each spends their days on the fringe of nature, pretending to be happy while masking insecurities.

Yet, as the narrative progresses (and Martha's paranoia increases) the two worlds become less alike to the viewer as they morph into one in Martha's mind.

Is she running away from her past or toward it? I'll let you answer that one for yourself. Either way, the highly ambiguous ending is sure to have people talking.

Durkin orchestrates the action in Martha Marcy May Marlene with a careful eye. It's a thriller without ever feeling like one - and that's a good thing.

The film redefines what a thriller can be. Durkin substitutes quick cuts for long shots, letting the tense emotions bleed off the screen and linger. Instead of relying on musical numbers for emotional cues, he lets the diegetic sound speak for itself.

Olsen's star-making performance aside, the supporting cast is similarly commendable. Hawkes, who has perfected backcountry brooding (see Winter's Bone), is subtle in his psychological seduction. Paulson's Lucy mimics the insecurities of Olsen's Martha while hovering behind a collected front. Their tenuous relationship is the beating heart of the otherwise bleak film.

Hugh Dancy gives the film's weakest performance as Lucy's successful husband Ted. Ted's transformation from supportive brother-in-law to ostracized husband is abrupt and bizarre. In a film that's success depends on its subtly, Dancy sticks out like a sore thumb.

David Tabbert's costuming is likewise confusing. When Olsen is not naked (and there's a lot of nudity for the young actress) she's seen in a confusing mix of short shorts and frontier outfits a la Big Love.

However, the film generally steers clear of the cult clichés that could have easily made the understated thriller a docudrama.

More than anything else, Martha Marcy May Marlene, heralds the birth of a new star.

Elizabeth Olsen is around to stay. Martha Marcy May Marlene is just one of three films Olsen will star in in 2011. And, she has another three lined up for 2012.

In the famous words of her little sisters, You got IT dude. Elizabeth Olsen is Hollywood's new IT girl, and she earned it on her own terms.

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