Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (NYFF 2011)

Sure it’s fun to see fugitives make daring escapes, characters have overemotional breakdowns and others dodge a barrage of bullets, but if you’re looking for something along those lines that’s far more realistic, writer-director Sean Durkin does a notable job taking the standard elements of your average psychological thriller, compressing them and letting Elizabeth Olsen bring the remainder to life. The result is Martha Marcy May Marlene and it’s a feature film that packs far more tension and emotion than any shoot ‘em up, mind game action flick out there.

Olsen is Martha. Well, she’s Martha to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). To Patrick (John Hawkes) and the others living on his seemingly quaint farm, she’s Marcy May. With her parents long gone, Martha takes to Patrick like a fatherly figure and he takes her to his home, a house packed to the brim with young adults who share clothing, maintain their land and are on the brink of being able to function as a self-sufficient community. While this does sounds like a noble venture, the farmhouse most certainly has a dark side, which includes, but is not limited to, sexual abuse, theft and violence.

We first meet Martha on her way out. After her grand escape, with no other option, she calls Lucy who drives to upstate New York to pick her up and bring Martha back to the vacation home she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Sounds like a dream come true after being trapped in such a dismal situation, but the memories of Patrick’s place continue to haunt Martha, so much so that it’s impossible to adapt to her sister’s warm and loving lifestyle.

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