Considering the history of such things, it may sound a bit weird to hear the statement, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen is a damn fine actress, but nevertheless, there it is. Elizabeth Olsen, making her feature debut (the actress has several other finished films on the horizon), is actually quite spectacular in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Of course while her elder twin siblings were busy partying and becoming tabloid fodder, Lizzie was at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, exploring her craft. Whether acting school is a help or a hindrance (there are arguments in both directions), the fact that the younger Miss Olsen (twenty-one while filming) gives such a stunning and harrowing performance, and gives it with the unique subtlety of a seasoned thespian, makes one toss the idea of hereditary talent right out the proverbial window. But enough of this sibling rivalry (even as one-sided as it may very well be), for it is the film itself we are here to talk about today.
And as far as that film goes, the mysteriously and alliteratively titled Martha Marcy May Marlene, the directorial debut of Sean Durkin (winner of the Best Director prize at Sundance for his efforts) is just as subtlely harrowing as the aforementioned performance of Miss Olsen. Taking a look at a young woman, freshly escaped from a Manson-esque cult in the Catskills of New York, trying to attempt submersion back into the so-called real world. We first meet Martha (or Marcy May as she is rechristened by cult leader Patrick) in mid-escape, shortly before calling her estranged sister for help, and we, along with Martha, will spend the rest of the film in a state of trepidation and worried confusion. As Durkin leaps back and forth between Martha's uncomfortable homecoming and Marcy May's bewildering life inside the cult, many viewers may become a bit disoriented (at least those not familiar with such non-linear storytelling), but this is just what the filmmaker wants from his audience - a sense of bewilderment, just as Olsen's multi-named, multi-minded title character has.
Making allusions to Martha's sense of reality (at some points one even begins to wonder if it isn't all in her mind) and how manipulated her mind may very well be (at least some of her memories are true, but just how many are to be trusted), Durkin creates a nearly constant sense of looming dread around his star pupil, just as Olsen shows how deep such fear and confusion go. And the young actress does all of this by merely using the most important tool an actor has - her most expressive face. Olsen shows such feeling, such deep emotion, without ever resorting to cheap theatrics, that such a gift puts her in a class with more renowned actors such as Kate Winslet, Michelle Williams, Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman. We see on Olsen's face, the atrocities gone through, the anger and hurt and desperation in such a short life. Even when the film tends to sag a bit as it inevitably does at times, it is this young up-and-comer that hefts it back up onto her surprisingly powerful shoulders and keeps the harrowing journey going on and on until the final cut.