Elizabeth Olsen Shines in Cult Escapee Thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene” at Sundance

“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” starring 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, made its world premiere at Sundance Friday in front of a packed house at the Eccles theater.

Writer-director Sean Durkin is the prototype of a Sundance success story, having first made the short film “Mary Last Seen” about a young girl who goes on a road trip with her boyfriend, lured by the promise of paradise. The film was honored at Cannes last year. Now he's in Park City with a sequel to the short, one he developed as a part of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

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 (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). And John Hawkes plays the cult’s seductive and manipulative leader. 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. The tension mounts until the final moment, which sucked all the air out of the room.

The premiere earned a loud ovation, after which, Durkin discussed the process of developing the projects.

“As I was working on the feature and trying to get it made last year, it just wasn’t ready, but I wanted to direct something, so we decided to make (“Mary Last Seen”). (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) is about when she leaves. And I had done all this research and learned all these methods about how people get involved, and I just wanted to do a short that was an example of those different stages.

“I wanted to do something about a cult that was contemporary. Often times movies that deal with them are period, or rather, set in the ‘60s or ‘70s, and kind of over-the-top. And I wanted to do something contemporary; that I thought would be real. I studied all different groups and really found that the methods of manipulation and the abuse—it’s all the same, whether it’s religion, no matter what religion it is, there’s a consistency. And then a friend of mine, as I started writing the script came forward, and was very generous and shared with me her experiences. She had been through something similar, and so a lot of the particular incidences within the cult are based on her experience."

Durkin was not alone in having friends confess to their experiences with such groups. Elizabeth Olsen, too, found she had a number of friends with stories to tell.

“Know that it’s not this fictitious, exaggerated thing, that actually I know a few people, when I told them I was doing this movie told me, ‘Oh, yeah, my parents ere in a cult. And then I was born into a cult. And then we ran away,’” said Olsen. “It’s everywhere. And so it’s not this like this crazy outlandish… It’s rooted in something that’s very real—that’s taboo.” 

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is running in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.


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