‘Martha’ showcases great upcoming talent

by David Dixon

Courtesy of Jody Lee Lipes
Courtesy of Jody Lee Lipes

Fox Searchlight Pictures’ marketing behind “Martha Marcy May Marlene” mostly focuses on Elizabeth Olsen’s remarkable acting.

It does not really give any general indication what the tale is about. This is a smart move, because first-time writer and director Sean Durkin tells his story in a mysterious way and gradually reveals information. Even the title is not supposed to make sense for quite some time.

Olsen plays the main protagonist, a young female living in a place that does not seem to belong in the 21st century. There is the sense something is wrong with her lifestyle, and she abruptly decides to run away from it. The film then goes back and forth in time to show why she decided to leave her old world, and depicts her trying to start a new phase of her existence.

The audience is dropped into the story in such a way that questions are immediately asked about the main character. Eventually, everything starts to come together, but Durkin still keeps situations tense until the final credits.

The ensemble is uniformly excellent. John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy and Sarah Paulson all play complex individuals. Durkin could have easily made his supporting players one-note caricatures, but he develops each person into an unpredictable soul who is capable of more than the audience expects.

Olsen is spectacular in every moment of her performance. During certain scenes, she comes across as a kind young woman just looking for a place to fit in, while in her darkest moments, she can be scary and is sometimes deliberately emotionally distant. It has been a while since sex and nudity has been so intricate to a plot. It is not handled in a gratuitous manner, but as a way to deepen and expand the heroine. Olsen deserves all the praise she is getting for her portrayal, and hopefully will have a terrific future on screen.

In his debut feature, Durkin directs in the style of a mature storyteller. He finds time to enhance the depth of the narrative, by filming little details such as the chores that members of Olsen’s old community work on. The big picture is equally important, and the director treats all sequences with care. This not only applies in a visual sense, but also to the original plotline.

Music from composers Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is handled beautifully. Creating tension when needed, the soundtrack is sparse, yet memorable.

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes films a vision that is simultaneously elegant and horrific. It has a dark look to it that still finds serenity in nature.

Dreamlike and nightmarish, this is at times a disturbing escapade. However, there is so much intelligence in how things are handled that repeated viewing is needed for full appreciation.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a tremendous drama with an unforgettable lead performance that will hopefully launch the career of a fresh filmmaker. As long as viewers don’t enter the theater with too much information beforehand, spectators will find this to be a haunting and superb achievement.

Information about “Martha Marcy May Marlene” can be found at foxsearchlight.com/marthamarcymaymarlene

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