'Martha Marcy May Marlene' the Latest Indie Fave to Borrow From B-Movies

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

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Fox Searchlight

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.")

In the same O'Hehir piece, a review of Bellflower and Another Earth—both alums from this year's Sundance festival that saw commercial release over the summer—O'Hehir observed: "The invasion of a genre-movie sensibility into independent film is visible all over the map, from Joe Cornish's Attack the Block, in which South London ghetto kids battle alien invaders, to the trippy surrealism of Miranda July's exquisite infidelity drama The Future"—also a member of the Sundance class of 2011—"to Gareth Edwards' cruelly underappreciated Monsters, a blend of doomed romance, political allegory and futuristic sci-fi."

But the American indies under discussion in the Salon piece, as well as Martha Marcy, seem to have more in common besides just cross-pollination-for-cross-pollination's sake: namely, a palpable anxiety about growing up. In each case, the genre aspects enhance the sense of a world that's veered entirely off-course.

Like Martha Marcy, Another Earth, and Bellflower happen to be first directorial efforts (by Mike Cahill and Evan Glodell, respectively), and both films use sci-fi tropes to tell stories of irreparable quarter-life damage. In the former film, college-bound teen Rhoda (played by newcomer Brit Marling, who also co-wrote), distracted behind the wheel one night, winds up killing a professor's family; she's packed off to prison instead of MIT. Once she gets out, she starts one of those deeply felt but ill-advised movie affairs with the professor himself (the kind where a character doesn't disclose the pertinent details up front, and then keeps putting it off ...), and applies to win a trip to Earth 2, the carbon copy of Earth that has appeared in the sky. She is of the conviction that only a trip to a whole other planet can help assuage her of her guilt, and truly allow her to start her life over.

Bellflower isn't so earnestly tragic. It's about gearheads who are obsessed with the 1981 movie Road Warrior, and a romance gone bad, which gives them an excuse to indulge their most destructive apocalyptic fantasies. As with Martha Marcy, there's deliberate confusion as to what's really happening, as the protagonist descends ever deeper into his own juvenile world of hot rods and flamethrowers—a terrifying revenge fantasyland from which he may never escape (the movie floats brain damage as a practical explanation for its gonzo last act).

Just as these two films project their protagonists' angst out into a cosmic, or apocalyptic, dimension, Martha Marcy plays on (more abstract) elements of horror and suspense to tell the story of a harshly interrupted coming-of-age. Perhaps these individual nightmares about the path out of postadolescence are filtered through some of the genre classics the filmmakers themselves came of age watching.