Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, has delicate features and smoky eyes that fade between hazel and green depending on how the light hits them. Her appearance is a cross between Vera Farmiga and Maggie Gyllenhaal and she’s got the acting skills to match.
As the star of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Olsen has the difficult task of portraying a character struggling with her connection to reality after escaping from a small cult in upstate New York. What happened to Martha during her with the cult unfolds through flashback sequences that become increasingly sinister as the movie progresses.
While the audience learns of Martha’s disturbing experiences, her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson)—who Martha lives with after fleeing the cult—remains painfully in the dark. Martha is unable or unwilling to explain where she’s been and what happened to her in the two years since they last saw each other.
Writer-director Sean Durkin juxtaposes Martha’s flashbacks with her present surroundings to show how deeply her experience with the cult changed her understanding of what is normal behavior. Skinny dipping in a lake and crawling into her sister’s bed while Lucy and her husband are having sex are just two examples.
In addition to these actions Martha simply comes across as somebody who is disconnected to the outside world. Olsen does a terrific job of portraying Martha’s conflicted emotions. It’s obvious she’s not comfortable living with Lucy but she’s also terrified of being found by the cult.
The strength of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is Olsen’s performance, which is haunting and mysterious. Her ability to be both fragile and strong-willed is mesmerizing to watch. Academy Award nominee John Hawkes, who plays the leader of the cult, does a fine job but he’s not a central character.
A cult by definition is a secret society and it can be hard to understand why somebody would join one. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” sheds some light on how a person can become seduced by a cult and then be unable to disconnect themselves from that way of living. Martha makes a decision by the end of the movie that is difficult to accept yet also understandable. She’s been altered by the cult so much that there is no way she can go back to anything else.
The reaction to “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is sure to be split and each side will argue their viewpoint vigorously. One thing is certain, Olsen will be in high demand after this role.