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Martha Marcy May Marlene

by on November 4, 2011
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“Martha Marcy May Marlene” may be the worst date movie ever. It’s up there with “Precious” and “Blue Valentine” as both squirm-inducing and tragically true. But like its gut-wrenching predecessors, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” boasts gorgeous performances, a compelling story and imagery so strong the audience can’t look away, no matter how much it wants to.

Elizabeth Olsen (who until this bravura breakthrough was known as the younger sister of “Full House” twins Mary Kate and Ashley) is all halting speech and haunted eyes as Martha, a lost soul who’s recently escaped from a cult where smoky-voiced leader Patrick (John Hawkes) christened her Marcy May before subjecting her to mind control, sexual victimization and horrific violence. (Martha was also known as Marlene for reasons explained later in the film.) Only certain of her need to flee, Martha reaches out to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for the first time since disappearing two years ago. Originally at their country home for two weeks of rest and relaxation, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), must now adjust to a young woman who thinks nothing of crawling into their bed during sex and who’s clearly traumatized but refuses to speak of her former life.

At two full hours, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” should feel long but has the quick pacing of a thriller — and in a way, it is. Director and screenwriter Sean Durkin employs the dreaded writers’ cliche “show, don’t tell” with aplomb, artfully intermingling Martha’s difficulties in assimilating with progressing flashbacks of her cult life. Cults are known for preying on lost souls, and Durkin doesn’t hide the manipulation worked on Martha from her first visit to the compound while illuminating how the young woman would not only fall hook, line and sinker, but would then subject herself to a dehumanizing initiation rite. With only a few throwaway lines, Durkin deftly illustrates Martha and Lucy’s troubled family history and complicated present. Even before the third-act reveal, it’s clear how desperate Martha was to escape, that she reached out to a sibling who never understood her — and really never tried.

A warning for women who have survived violence: “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is basically a series of triggers. For Martha, a benign kale smoothie recalls an act of brutality and it only gets more disturbing from there. For those fortunate enough to remain sexually unscathed, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” instills a simultaneous sense of paranoia and deep sadness. The plot is gripping, the action suspenseful, the acting stellar (especially Olsen, Hawkes and Brady Corbet, the latter as a devoted brute). Though it’s not a candidate for repeat viewing, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is stunningly effective and left me looking over my shoulder all the way home while fighting back tears.