Still riding a wave of buzz that began nine months ago at Sundance, Martha Marcy May Marlene is finally out of the festival circuit and playing in theaters nationwide. Sundance has a penchant for finding new talent, and indeed Elizabeth Olsen and first–time director Sean Durkin display a remarkable maturity in their craft that is hardly novice.

Olsen plays the titular Martha, who runs away from an abusive cult in upstate New York. She takes refuge at her sister’s lake house, but has very little recollection of her past, just incomplete and fragmented memories. As she struggles to adapt to a more “normal” lifestyle, she slips into a debilitating paranoia — is the cult leader (Hawkes) trying to find her?


As the title suggests, the film is about fractured identity, following Martha’s attempt to piece together her life. There are frequent flashbacks to her time with the cult, but the word ‘flashback’ isn’t quite fitting. For Martha, the past collapses into the present, leading to disorientation and tension.

Because the flashbacks are shot similarly to the present action, we, like Martha, are never quite sure where we are in time and space. Durkin wisely avoids cheap thrills throughout, and instead creates an atmosphere of escalating dread and suspense, reflecting Martha’s paranoia.

Elizabeth Olsen deserves every bit of praise she’s received for her performance. In nearly every shot, she is able to convey a range of emotions just through her beautifully expressive face. From wide–eyed naivete to embarrassment to debilitating dread, Olsen makes Martha extremely believable and sympathetic.

The film doesn’t demonize the cult, though it of course condemns its violence and misogyny. Rather, MMMM examines what it means to fit in to any group at all, thus broadening the definition of “cult.” Our family is sort of like a “cult," as is our group of friends. Thus, in negotiating her place in society, Martha is like all of us, and we easily identity with her struggles.

4/5 Stars Directed by: Sean Durkin Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy Rated R, 101 min.

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