Sundance Review: Elizabeth Olsen makes her name in 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'
If you haven't heard of Elizabeth Olsen yet, you soon will and for all the right reasons. The younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen has two films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, but it's the dramatic competition entry, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," that is a superb showcase for her talent.
The feature directorial debut of Sean Durkin, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" centers on Martha (Olsen), a twentysomething woman who when we first meet her, is trying to escape from a communal farm in upstate New York. She reaches out to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who takes her to the summer home in Connecticut she shares with her compassionate -- to a point -- husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Much to their frustration, Martha won't tell Ted and Lucy where's she's been or what's happened to her. The film then intercuts between Martha attempting to recover from her psychological ordeal and many scenes exploring her life within the makeshift commune.
"Martha" is stylish, beautifully shot and features strong turns from John Hawkes as Patrick, the leader of the cult, and Brady Corbet as his effective no. 2. Durkin is very precious with slowly mapping out life on the farm where Martha lives and the slow indoctrination for those who come into the group. Eventually, we learn Patrick has convinced a number of younger men and women to couple up and join him in a cult where it's frowned upon not to share or open yourself up to him or anyone else (and you can easily figure out what that means). Durkin admitted after the screening he did everything possible not to make the cult world over the top and in some ways the minimal camera movements and quiet environment help create that tone. The picture also effectively contrasts Martha's difficult time in the Catskills with the plush, wealthy home her sister now lives in, but perhaps a bit too much. The difference between the worlds is pretty clear the minute Martha walks through the door, but Durkin jumps on that theme just a few too many times. In fact, that's the movie's biggest flaw, it's consistently repetitive in making its points about Martha and Lucy's fractured relationship and life on the commune. Durkin also noted afterward that he'd just finished editing the film this week after shooting in August and September. There are many films that have succeeded on such a short editing time frame, but "Marcy" feels like it needs a bit more time in the editing room to really become the moving experience Durkin wants it to be.
The saving grace is, of course, Olsen who will remind many of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Angelina Jolie at times. Olsen has an instant screen charisma and it's hard to not see her joining Jennifer Lawrence and Carey Mulligan as the industry's favorite new ingenues (worth noting both Lawrence and Mulligan had their own breakouts over the past two years at the festival). The 21-year-old actress also displays a maturity and strength uncommon for someone her age and profession in the difficult role of Martha. Unfortunately, while Olsen easily captivates her scattershot state of mind following her escape, Durkin cannot effectively explain just why she made the decision to become part of the cult. Audiences don't need it spelled out for them, but there is little backstory to explain why she ever decides to stay in the first place. All the other men and women at the commune are a little "off" (something Corbet in particular is very effective with), but you never really get that sense from Martha.
Commercial prospect for the picture are unclear. It's easy to suggest a company like Roadside could work wonders with "Martha" just because they had success with "Winter's Bone," but "Martha" won't reach the same level of overall critical acclaim. Instead, the film could find a home with a Magnolia or IFC Films that won't worry about making a big buck in theatrical. Nevertheless, no matter what its fate, "Martha" is a great showcase for Durkin and Olsen to display their substantial talents. Something moviegoers will no doubt enjoy for years to come.