Olsen’s lead performance raises ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

Elizabeth Olsen is captivating as a confused, impressionable young woman who escapes a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Elizabeth Olsen is captivating as a confused, impressionable young woman who escapes a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

In the lead-up to this fall’s release of Spike Lee’s re-make of one of my favorite films – Oldboy, a movie I mention on this blog with some frequency (such as here and here) – I’ve been pretty excited with what I’ve seen. Josh Brolin is the lead, Sharlto Copley is the man pulling Brolin’s strings and Sam Jackson who, well, let’s face it, pretty much makes everything better.

The only question mark on the cast, as far as I was concerned, was the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Elizabeth. Other than knowing she has a sterling reputation for her performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House, I knew nothing about her. So to get a feeling for Olsen, I recently watched Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I was duly impressed.

Olsen is Martha, a girl whose mother is dead, father is … no longer in the picture, and an older sister who was off at college while all of this was family upheaval was happening. Martha is left in the care of her aunt, but ends up leaving to live with a cult for more than two years, which is where we meet her. Martha escapes the cult and calls her older sister to come get her.

Olsen has two roles to play. Marcy May is the name given to her by the cult leader, a charismatic young man named Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick explains to her that family and society have let her down, that she’s special, a teacher, ready to help the world. He singles her out for favor, even writing and playing a song for her. Fairly idyllic … until the initiation, where Marcy May is drugged by one of her fellow female cult members, then awakened with the jostling of Patrick’s rape, dubbed a rebirth. Later, a new girl enters the picture, and Marcy May is pushed to the side, becoming one of the Marlenes, the name that all of the female cult members use when answering the phone. Abandoned again and a witness to a murder committed by one of the cult members with the blessing and aid of Patrick, that is when Martha is moved to call her sister and leave the group.

That is all seen in flashback. In the now, Martha is clearly in shock, possibly suffering from PTSD. She simultaneously fears the cult yet is drawn to return to the familiarity of her former life and the comfort of her relationships with fellow cult members. Martha has been stripped of her innocence, yes, but also of her social knowledge. She is blunt and occasionally rude with her comments to her sister, Lucy, and her sister’s new husband. When she goes to take a swim, she strips completely and dives in, returning to shore when Lucy chastises her for her nudity. Unable to sleep, she lays down in her sister’s bed … while Lucy and her husband are in the middle of making love.

Olsen handles it all with the aplomb of a much older actor. Her sincerity and uncertainty as a young cult member seeking acceptance, her fear as she realizes she is in over her head, her inability to connect with her achiever sister and brother-in-law, the guilt her memories bring her, the paranoia that the cult may come for her by force because of what she knows. A lesser actress would have been tempted to go over the top with it. Olsen’s performance is one of subtlety and nuance. (And kudos to the writer/director Sean Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier, who both do a brilliant job behind the scenes.)

I look forward to seeing what Olsen brings to Oldboy. I might not even wait, and check her out in Silent House, as well.

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One thought on “Olsen’s lead performance raises ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

  1. […] a slick piece of film making, and another outstanding performance by star Elizabeth Olsen (see also Martha Marcy May Marlene, which should have seen Olsen nominated for an Academy Award), who shines as the camera follows her […]

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