Elizabeth Olsen's turn as a recovering cult member plays like a psychological horror film—the latest genre, from sci-fi to action, that artsy Sundance films have raided for inspiration
Behold the power of the It Girl: In Martha Marcy May Marlene, a Sundance hit now playing in limited release, Elizabeth Olsen—little sister to the Olsen twins—stars as a young woman recently escaped from a latter-day version of the Manson Family. She has dominated much of the discussion about the film, earning rave reviews and shaping up to be a serious contender for a Best Actress nomination; Martha Marcy, slow-moving and elliptically told as it is, nonetheless did very well at the box office last weekend, raking in nearly $140,000 on only four screens (it expands to 25 today).
The fascination with Olsen no doubt stems in part from the fact that her breakout role has come in such a high-toned (yet still low-budget) art-house hypno-thriller, while her sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley, spent so much of their youths catering directly to their kid peers. Not to say that Martha Marcy's glowing reviews have been entirely misleading. First-time writer-director Sean Durkin focuses intensely on Olsen's character, Martha, as she attempts (and mostly fails) to decompress at her sister's Connecticut lake house, and flashes back to increasingly unsettling episodes from her time with the cult (led by John Hawkes's sinister singer-songwriter Patrick). The film's title should give some clue as to her mounting identity crisis. Olsen has an otherworldly look that is perfectly suited to communicating a haunted disconnection from reality.
That disconnection is, in essence, the subject of the film, which is more than merely a starlet vehicle—it also might be seen as a continuation of a recent micro-trend in American independent film. Throughout, Durkin keeps us guessing just how disconnected his protagonist is, and whether or not Patrick's minions are actually closing in on her. The filmmaker has made a psychological suspense flick in the tradition of early Roman Polanski (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby). In a way, Martha Marcy is also something of a haunted-house affair, with the audience left to wonder whether or not Patrick's minions are closing in on Martha at her sister's placid lakeside retreat. The movie registers a number of shock scares as well.
So looking beyond Martha Marcy's impressive lead performance, and its relatively novel subject matter (it's not every day you see a narrative film about the psychological trauma of cult membership), we have an assured American indie that tinkers knowingly with certain familiar genre elements. And it's not alone. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir wrote in August pointed out that "filmmakers on the outermost indie fringes are moving away from ultra-realism—or at least spicing it up with elements drawn from far more commercial realms, like science-fiction, horror or action movies." (The realm of literary fiction has lately seen a very similar form of "realist discontent.")