Martha Marcy May Marlene is a stupid name for a great film. Plot-wise, the less you know the better (to quote the name of a DJ Shadow album). So vaguely speaking, it’s about a girl who escapes from a cult – a sort of arthouse version of Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th.
Elizabeth Olsen (the talented Olsen sister) gives her breakthrough performance, quietly conveying subtle emotional complexity on her young face – just don’t ask her to do an Eastern European accent like in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film also features John Hawkes (as brilliant as he was in Winter’s Bone), Sarah Paulson (from American Horror Story) and Hugh Dancy (that twitchy psychic detective from NBC’s Hannibal).
The movie moves seamlessly and hauntingly between the past and present, becoming increasingly unsettling as the truth begins to surface through a haze of paranoia. Writer/director Sean Durkin balances the film’s terror with great sensitivity – beautiful locations are haunted by a sinister sense of abuse, abandonment and Manson-era terror. But this is no Rob Zombie-style shocker – it’s a moody arthouse piece, tonally closer to the psychological horror of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, also released in 2011.
With a star-making performance from Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene gets inside your head just as John Hawkes gets inside hers. The strong characterisation, chilling atmosphere and clever editing by Zac Stuart-Pontier ensure that this film will stay with you, even if the title won’t.