|Elizabeth Olsen...better than the twins combined.|
I’ve grown rather weary of the term “psychological thriller.” It almost never means what it should anymore. These days “psychological thrillers” are stories about serial killers trying to pass for social metaphors or stories about spies with ridiculous twists that are played off as “mind games.”
A true psychological thriller is something more subtle, something more grounded in the reality of emotional trauma and what it can do a person’s psyche. The thrill isn’t in waiting for the big twist or the reveal of the whodunit. It’s in the exhilaration of watching something harrowing and realizing how close it is (or could be) to home. Martha Marcy May Marlene gets that right.
After a two year absence, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) asking for a place to stay. She tells Lucy she was running away from an old boyfriend, but she’s really fleeing a cult led by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes), where she was named “Marcy May” and used the phone answering alias “Marlene.”
As she tries to settle in to a normal life at her sister’s lake house, Martha is haunted by memories of her time with Patrick and his followers. She recalls her initiation into the group, his fixation on her, and particularly how things begin to shift from welcoming to violent. As her sister does her best to teach her what “normal” is again, Martha begins to worry that Patrick will find her again.
The film steadfastly refuses to traffic in any of the gimmicks of other psychological thrillers. There’s no big chase scene, no deep dark moment in which the hero realizes who the villain really is. The horror of what Martha’s going through comes about slowly, like horror often does. It’s refreshing, but also far more disturbing than most of what you find in bigger budget films.
But the key to the psychological wounds evident in the film is Martha’s own status as perpetual misfit. She joined up with Patrick because she felt like an outsider, then found herself out of her element, then fled back to the world of her family only to find that she no longer fits in there either. This could all play out as muddled or chaotic or even boring, but writer/director Sean Durkin walks the line to perfection. He does it with the film’s lighting, with the sound, and with an absolutely staggering cast.
Elizabeth Olsen was noteworthy at first because she is the younger sister of twin stars Mary-Kate and Ashley. She’s noteworthy now because she is an astonishingly gifted young actress. Martha could be nothing but a blank stare, a prop on which to rest tales of cults. Through Olsen, even Martha’s blank stare becomes captivating. Her vulnerability, her paranoia and her unnervingly off-kilter sense of self are portrayed magnificently. Hawkes, who was brilliant in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, is equally magnificent. Patrick is quiet, casual, often lurking only in the background of scenes. But through Hawkes’ intensity he becomes a force from the moment you see him.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a masterful, gripping drama as much for what it does as what it doesn’t do. Durkin and Olsen have both presented us with an astonishing calling card, a film that makes you lean forward and listen closely, a film that leaves you itching with its memory.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is available everywhere on DVD