The Olsen twins’ little sister, Elizabeth, can act. Can she ever. The twins established themselves as cute-as-a-button household names early on, in the sitcom “Full House,” and then morphed into mini millionaire fashion moguls. The movie “Martha Marcy May Marlene” may provide just the vehicle for the younger Olsen to move out of her famous older siblings’ shadow and establish herself as the serious artist of the family. She’s magnificent.
While not a fun-and-popcorn entertainment movie, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a cautionary tale—a teaching piece, perhaps, a la the prison documentary horror “Scared Straight!” Parents might want to eventually keep a copy of it around in case their rebellious teens ever feel like running away and joining a sketchy commune.
Set in the present, the film opens on an idyllic farm setting of barns, fields, wildflowers, and songbirds. Matter-of-factly, the large communal family that works there is slowly revealed to be rather odd.
Young teen Martha (Olsen), obviously looking for community, is ever-so-gently inducted and indoctrinated—they all work the land, cook, bake, raise children, do laundry, “find their role,” and have gatherings in the barn to share news and newly written songs. Martha eventually gets renamed with other names beginning with “M”—hence the film’s title.
They also kowtow to patriarchal Patrick (John Hawkes nailing it with another performance as a vulpine, socially marginalized megalomaniac like the one he played in “Winter’s Bone”), who espouses an extremely twisted mélange of eastern philosophies. Along with these demonized notions, he employs a system of bullying and sweet talk to foist a Stockholm-syndrome dependency on the younger “family” members, especially the females. His 40-something self personally inducts and indoctrinates young girls in ways that are easily guessed.
Most of the film tells the story of Martha’s escape from the farm to live, for a time, with her long-estranged sister (played by Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s husband (Hugh Dancy). It depicts her sad attempt to reintegrate into normal life while being sabotaged by her own aberrant, cult-spawned behavior, which has become so commonplace to her that she’s not conscious of its abnormality.
As mentioned, Elizabeth Olsen is a fabulous young actress, able to generate truthful, raw, primal emotion. And, as the saying goes, “the camera loves her.” There’s only one false note toward the end that’s a tad horror-schlocky, but that would appear to have more to do with the directing than the acting.
There’s a cross-pollination of horror and realism these days, where dramas such as “Black Swan” employ horror techniques, and horror films like “The Descent” use gritty realism to generate a “this could happen to you” foreboding.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” doesn’t employ specific horror tricks so much as it sets the station on drama and then turns up the horror dial in terms of a mildly eerie and ominous soundtrack, murky lighting, and the use of Olsen’s charismatic, ethereal beauty to convey a haunted, bleak sense of despair.
The seamless transitions between Martha’s flashbacks and present reality are revealing as to how people in general, and lost youth in particular, can be led astray.
While some communes (Israeli kibbutzim come to mind) can be cool for kids, cults are the other side of the coin. The movie avoids dramatizing and sensationalizing cult life. By giving it this low-key, realist treatment, the film becomes all the more chilling, achieving a sort of “Blair Witch” shaky-cam naturalism that, along with Olsen’s riveting performance, lingers in the mind.
So when junior starts threatening to join some group overseen by a Charles Manson-type figure, just say, “Hold on a second” and pop the DVD of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” when it comes out in Blu-ray. He’ll be happily bagging leaves, mowing the lawn, and taking out the trash in no time.