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Film: Manipulating the Mind of Martha

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How does a young woman allow a complete stranger access to her inner thoughts, giving him full sway over her feelings and actions? An interesting question brought vividly to life in the buzzed-about indie film Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight), writer-director Sean Durkin's brooding debut feature. Elizabeth Olsen (making her feature debut as well) plays Martha, a troubled young woman who escapes a cult-like "family" in a seemingly idyllic upstate New York farming community, only to struggle with acclimating to a regular life with her estranged sister and her new husband.

The film, which won the Best Director Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Prix de la Jeunesse, opened in limited release to strong reviews and box office receipts, and is now expanding across the U.S.


John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause, Christopher Abbott in Martha Marcy May Marlene (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

The secluded cult compound that Martha flees at the film's beginning is a strangely traditional place: the women prepare the food, and do not eat until the men have finished their meals. Cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes, an Oscar nominee for Winter's Bone) rechristens Martha as 'Marcy May' and immediately starts getting into her head, telling her she can finally "be herself." His odd, off-kilter charm gets to her, especially when he performs a song for the group, specifically about her. Just as she is starting to trust and believe in him, he takes her sexually, an act filled with discomfort and uncertainly for her. For him, it seems like just another conquest.

Martha never really adapts fully to the increasingly controlling dynamics of life on the farm and, when things become violent, slips away into the woods early one morning. The only relative she has is her sister Lucy (the excellent Sarah Paulson), who she hasn't seen in two years.

Lucy is trying to have a baby with her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), a successful architect with enormous work pressures. The couple has escaped to their beautiful weekend house for some peace and private time as Martha arrives to stay with them indefinitely. Lucy tries to reconnect with her troubled sister, but Martha's lack of propriety or any sort of boundaries soon puts a strain on her sister's marriage. Used to the supposed freedoms of cult living, Martha thinks nothing of jumping into the lake behind her sister's house completely nude, in full view of her new brother-in-law. While Lucy and her husband make love, Martha slips into the bedroom unannounced and lies quietly at the edge of the bed; her explanation is that she didn't want to be alone.

Perhaps due to fear of cult members coming after her, embarrassment at her cult experience, or confusion with trying to adjust to her new surroundings, Martha never tells her sister where she has been for the last two years (the audience sees the story unfold through a series of flashbacks). They argue about the state of their relationship (or lack thereof), but never really resolve things until Ted loses patience with Martha's outbursts.

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes' camera moves slowly throughout the film, taking in the raw beauty of upstate New York (the film was shot in the Catskills). It also stays close to Martha, giving viewers an intimate view as she grapples with memories from her cult experience while trying to transition to a more conventional world.

The strong buzz coming out of Sundance and Cannes has really put Martha Marcy May Marlene on people's radars. Critical praise and other chatter about Olsen's breakout performance have also helped with awareness of the film. Although the film opened on only four American screens, it garnered an impressive opening weekend, earning almost $140,000 (the film expanded to 25 screens this past weekend). Olsen, younger sister of celebrity fashion moguls Mary Kate and Ashley, is already being talked up as a possible Best Actress Oscar nominee, and has four other films coming out over the next several months.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is in limited, but expanding, release now.