“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” stars Elizabeth Olsen in the title role, as a young woman who decides she needs to leave the cult she’s been a part of for the past two years. Her mesmerizing performance makes for an impressive debut.
Olsen (little sister of the famous twins) gives a remarkably assured and brave turn as Martha, as we watch her try to adjust to life back with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy). The film unfolds with Marcy having increasingly more terrifying flashbacks to her days with the cult, memories brought on by the most mundane acts of domesticity. Olsen really is a revelation, masterfully constructing a woefully delicate Martha that is at the same time fiercely strong.
John Hawkes plays the cult’s seductive and manipulative leader, Patrick. Watching him methodically reprogram, right down to renaming her ("You look more like a 'Marcy May'"—it's a brilliant moment that's given birth to an unfortunate title), will make your skin crawl--he's too convincing.
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Sarah Paulson is such a remarkably empathetic actress, who seems so attuned to her fellow performers, that it makes her Lucy feel maddeningly dense. How can she not see how damaged her sister is? Yes, there's some old family resentments hinted at that surely keep her at bay a bit longer than she might normally stay. But Martha's behavior is so not right, that Lucy seems as though writer-director Sean Durkin crafted her to be willfully ignorant in deference to the plot.
Otherwise, however, Durkin's sense of pacing is beautiful, as he gives us just enough crumbs from Martha's past to keep us following, while at the same time slowly building the sense of dread, which reaches a gut-punching crescendo before "Martha Marcy May Marlene" cuts to black.