Without giving too much away (spoilers really need to be avoided to get the best out of Durkin’s film), Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman leaves her life with a woodland ‘collective’ to move back in with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Haunted by memories of her time with the group, particularly its charismatic patriarch Patrick (the once again outstanding John Hawkes, now remarkably in his early fifties), Martha struggles to adapt to her new surroundings whilst succumbing to several bouts of crippling paranoia.
It’s hard to recall a more visually assured American debut in the last few years than Durkin’s inaugural effort. Martha Marcy May Marlene drips with tension, intrigue and a tangible sense of the uncanny as past, present and future play out on near simultaneous plains. On paper, the film’s constant spacial and temporal jumps would appear unfilmable, but thanks to a lean script and a focus on visual storytelling, Durkin somehow manages to accomplish what he set out to to – and with substantial panache.
As has already been widely reported, Olsen is the stand-out performer from an undeniably strong cast of indie talent. In her first feature role (2011’s Silent House was shot before but released after), Olsen commands the screen, drawing the audience in to her troubled past memories and present psychological dissonance. Her demeanour flits effortlessly from calm to manic, a pitch perfect rendition of an individual who has had her brain ‘washed’ of 21st century conventions and contemporary social etiquette. As previously mentioned, Hawkes is also a revelation as group master Patrick, subtly exerting control over his minions by stripping them of their own identity (“Martha? You look more like a Marcy May”).
Whilst falling just short of being in the top two or three films of 2012, Durkin and Olsen have both established themselves as two of the hottest properties in American independent cinema. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those rare, wonderful films that wriggles its way into your unconscious, and – like Martha’s deep-seeded memories – refuses to fade without a fight.