Martha Marcy May Marlene explores the haunting effects of cults

Martha Marcy May Marlene has received a lot of press for its star Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of former child stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

She has a face that “looks like” a lot of others, obviously including her famous sisters. While watching the film, I thought she looked like a younger, blonde Maggie Gyllenhaal. A quick check of Olsen’s IMDb.com profile shows I’m not the only one who was thinking it.

Still, once you get past her pedigree, you’ll find that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a star-making turn for the 22-year-old actress, and that her haunting performance elevates the so-so film into something more memorable.

Writer/director Sean Durkin’s flick can be described as a psychological thriller — albeit one that’s a bit slow at times. The movie gives an inside look at a cult and the effects/post-traumatic stress experienced by one young woman when she leaves.

The audience meets Martha (Olsen) as she’s running furiously through the woods. She places a tearful call to her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who immediately picks up her and offers Martha a room at the vacation cottage where she and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are staying.

Through flashbacks, we see how the vulnerable young woman got involved in the cult; we witness the sexual initiation with Patrick (John Hawkes), who everyone at the cult hails as their spiritual father; and we watch some of the violent acts she was forced to participate in. It is also Patrick who decides that Martha looks like a “Marcy May,” and he changes her name.

It’s all quite horrifying, to put it mildly.

At home with Ted and Lucy, Martha struggles with identifying what is real and what is all in her mind. The initial quiet paranoia she experiences soon becomes full-blown post-traumatic stress, and Ted and Lucy have no idea what do with her.

The movie has a draw-your-own-conclusion ending that was audibly frustrating to those in my screening audience, but I think it was a good ending. Most of the movie felt weird and bizarre, so ambiguity worked here.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is definitely the kind of movie that has Oscar bait written all over it, though I’m hesitant to think that this will be the best movie of the year. Olsen’s performance is probably good enough for some nominations come awards time. The same can be said for John Hawkes — I had some definite flashbacks of his Oscar-nominated performance last year in Winter’s Bone.

Hawkes is effectively creepy as the cult leader, especially during one scene when he serenades Marcy May after having his way with her.

I found the subject matter interesting, even though the movie sometimes moved a bit slow for my taste. I wanted more drama. The cult seemed to let Martha go so easily. I can only assume that maybe the cult figured they had so much control over her that she’d not be able to function in the real world and would return. All told, it’s an appealing study on mind control and how one can make another do something and have it seem like it was that person’s choice.

There have been lots of movies and documentaries about cults, but not too many focus on the after-effects and psychological trauma the way this one does. That’s what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene stand out in the pack. ••

Movie Grade: B+