Elizabeth Olsen is mesmerising at the heart of Martha Marcy May Marlene, an indie drama that first made waves on the festival circuit way back in January last year. The actress, who's the younger sister of Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen, makes an astonishing breakthrough as a young woman bearing serious mental scars from her time spent with a cult in the Catskills. You can't afford to take your eyes off her for a second.
The story unfolds over two timelines, showing Olsen's Martha living in a farm community led by Patrick (John Hawkes), and later struggling to find a sense of normality with sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in their plush middle class home.
Through neat editing tricks director Sean Durkin connects the two narrative strands as he gets inside the mind of the psychologically fractured lead character. Martha is desperately in search of an identity, but she's so elusive you begin to believe there may not be anyone there at all.
Life with Lucy and Ted isn't much rosier for Martha. Her trauma is etched deep, and before long she's stripping for naked swims, leaping into bed with her sister and brother-in-law while they're having sex and losing it at a party they're hosting. The past and present intertwine through the lead character, who proves to be an unreliable narrator thanks to her fragile state of mind and increasing paranoia.
This film works best in its moments of creepy unease when Martha is with Patrick and driving a wedge between her family. When Durkin tries to amp up the suspense elements the film loses its way - the director's laid-back visual style doesn't lend itself well to making an impactful thriller.
It's the compelling acting though, particularly from Olsen, that keeps this a riveting watch. Martha is emotionally closed-off and distant, making her a tricky character to embrace. Credit should go to the 22-year-old for building a character so fascinating out of someone so vaguely sketched. Olsen is a star rapidly on the rise and one you feel is capable of big things in the coming years.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is indie cinema with an emphatic 'I', all mumbled dialogue, deliberate ambiguity and oppressive bleakness. The presence of Hawkes, as great as he is, only underlines its Sundanceiness. The actors carry things along, but it's just a little too detached and distance to completely engage you.