I never thought I’d love a movie starring an Olsen sister. But then, until this year, I thought Mary-Kate and Ashley were the only ones. Neither of them appears in Martha Marcy May Marlene, last January’s Sundance favorite for which the younger Olsen sister, Elizabeth, 22, has deservedly collected Oscar buzz over the course of the last 12 months.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the film, which is Olsen’s debut, ends up being one of my five favorite movies of 2011. I must admit, when I put the screener into the DVD player, I wasn’t expecting much more than a sort of redux of Winter’s Bone, last year’s Sundance favorite featuring another young ingenue (Jennifer Lawrence, who actually impressed me more in a small scene in Like Crazy — the one where Anton Yelchin’s character dumps her the first time — than she did in her entire Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone performance) and a stunning supporting performance by John Hawkes, who deserves a second consecutive Academy nod.
But the movie is so much more than that. Hawkes and ingenue star aside, Martha Marcy May Marlene is actually nothing like Winter’s Bone, thank God. Even the title, which I’ve loathed for the better part of the year, grew on me over the course of an hour and 45 minutes. In fact, it now makes total sense. It stands for the various monikers used by Olsen’s character, whose birth name is Martha, during the film, and reflects the different sides of the character, who’s as layered as the movie.
The most impressive thing about Martha Marcy May Marlene, besides the acting in it, is that it works on so many levels — as a psychological thriller, as a cautionary tale about the dangers of cults, and as a straight-up family drama. I’m still trying to figure out which level effected me most. On one hand, the psychological thriller is one of my favorite genres. I love a gothic horror in which the threat is implied and the violence is (mostly) in your head. That’s why Gaslight had such a profound effect on me.
As for the cult aspect, I’ve always found them to be fascinating. Cults exist on so many levels — organized religion being one of them — and they prey on the side of us that craves acceptance and the need to belong. John Hawkes is such a great actor because he can be threatening and sexy at the same time. I can understand why a young person — particularly a female — might fall under his spell. You’re not sure whether you want to run to him or run from him.
Then there’s the family drama. I’m a sucker for family angst onscreen because I’ve had so much of my own. In that regard, Martha Marcy May Marlene may be no Interiors or Ordinary People, but it skillfully navigates the rocky terrain of the sibling dynamic (much like Rachel Getting Married did a few years ago). Martha and her sister Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson, who has come so far since Jack & Jill) are disapproving of each other, though for completely different reasons.
Lucy would seem to be the one with the enviable life, and I must admit, looking at her beautiful home, her handsome successful husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, whose interesting take on the character makes his coming on to Martha always seem like a distinct possibility) and her orderly lifestyle, I kept thinking to myself, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Lucy and Ted represent the American dream, but despite everything they own, their lives seem kind of empty. They’re people who measure success and happiness in terms of lifestyle. You’re not really living unless you have — or are striving for — a nice home (or in their case, homes) and a good income. I’m still cringing at the dinner table scene. Every great family drama needs at least one uncomfortable sequence involving the breaking of bed and the raising of voices.
“If she’s happy I’m happy,” Ted says when Martha asks if he wants to have the baby that the couple is trying to conceive. “So you’re unhappy,” Martha responds, totally deadpan and totally nailing him. It’s a double-sided response: One one hand, Martha recognizes that Ted’s easygoing martyrdom (I’ll take one for the team because I love her so much) is masking his ambivalence about the baby issue — and his marriage, in general. On the other, she sees her sister for what she is: quietly miserable and lacking any real purpose other than being a wife and mother.
In what I consider to be the film’s most telling scene (right before that tragic dinner), Martha asks Lucy a question, possibly ready to finally reveal what happened to her in that Catskills cult, and not so much Lucy’s response as the way she delivers it, reveals the hollowness of her character. “Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” (As a matter of fact, I have.)
‘WTH?!” Lucy seems to be saying with her eyes, if not her mouth, which responds, “Not really.” She entirely misses Martha’s point, the most crucial one of the entire film. I have a feeling that, like Martha Marcy May Marlene, it will be haunting me for days to come.