‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ is a film worth paying attention to

Alex Williams

Any fan of good alliteration will certainly be excited about “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” but the majority of the film’s buzz is centered around star Elizabeth Olsen and director Sean Durkin, both of whom blindsided the film industry back at Sundance with the chilling, paranoid drama.

Martha (Olsen) opens the film stealing away from the secluded house in the New York Catskill Mountains where she’s spent the last few years of her life in a cult led by Patrick (the hypnotizing John Hawkes). Seeking refuge with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), Martha tries to return to normal society under the guise of having spent the last few years with a boyfriend, but finds reintegrating herself more difficult than she imagined, as the memories of her time in the mountains keep returning to haunt her.

Much of the film’s aesthetic is lifted from last year’s critical darling “Winter’s Bone,” from its stripped-down narrative to plentiful ambiguity to a strong supporting performance from John Hawkes, but the film also has plenty of its own tricks up its sleeve. The biggest of these is the sheer amount of fun Durkin has with the thin line between memory and reality, the gap between which is jumped with little more than a cleverly deployed cut or scene change. Durkin’s effective manipulation of the audience keeps the film moving at a quick clip, despite its languid pacing and mood.

The scenes set at Patrick’s compound are a precise, unflinching depiction of a cult’s brainwashing process. Durkin avoids the ideals and functions of the cult in favor of seeing their increasingly reprehensible actions without the smoke screen of belief that Martha (renamed Marcy May within the compound’s walls) is blinded by. The modern-day scenes carry their own powerful punch, with Martha’s increasingly agitated mental state keeping us both sympathetic to and a little weary of the character, much as her own family is. As Martha’s sister, Sarah Paulson falls a bit on the unlikeable side at times, but Paulson’s always struggled to be a warm presence on film, and she performs spectacularly when asked.

Even so, she’s eclipsed by Elizabeth Olsen, who gives one of the year’s best performances. Martha is a deeply disturbed character throughout, and yet Olsen keeps us firmly on her side, unflinching in her depiction of a refugee with no real place in the world, selling Martha’s terror every time she hears a bump in the night and frustration at the world she’s returned to. It’s a revelatory performance from a bold new artistic voice, and it would be a crime to see Olsen excluded from this year’s Oscar nominees.

If there’s one bone to pick with “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” it’s the ending, which is as abrupt as any final shot you’ve ever seen (think “The Sopranos,” but more frustrating). The finale lacks thematic significance and seems to be ambiguous simply for arthouse cred. But when the biggest complaint about a film is wanting to see more of it, it’s clear that you’re working with a film worth paying attention to. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a film that deserves all the attention it can get in the crowded film slate of Oscar season.

Printed on Friday, November 4, 2011 as: ‘Martha Marcy’ generates Oscar buzz