The little-known Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the Olsen Twins, who were savvy enough to cash in and get out of movies) makes an indelible screen debut in this excellent psychological thriller from first-time writer/director Sean Durkin. Olsen plays the titular character, a young woman haunted by her past, both inside her biological family and the hippie-like cult which had become her new family, headed by a charismatic sociopath with religious undertones named Patrick (the great John Hawkes, proving to be the most valuable character actor working in films today).
When the film starts, Martha (or, as she has been re-named by Patrick, Marcy May) is escaping the insular cocoon of her life in the cult and gets in touch with her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), to help with her escape. It is clear to us right away that the two sisters are not close; Lucy, married to a rich English businessman named Ted (Hugh Dancy), is the quintessential social climber, and is content with her life of plenty. Martha has nothing but disdain for her sister, but is so lost that she has nowhere else to turn. She stays with Lucy and Ted at their vacation home, and is instantly uncomfortable within their staid lifestyle, particularly in comparison to the life she has left under Patrick’s control, where sexual freedom, criminal endeavors and a total rejection of ‘bourgeois values’ are the norm. At times almost feral in her behavior, Martha sleeps all day, can barely communicate with her sister without hostility, and is constantly lost in memories of her recent past, much of which we see in flashback. This leads to tensions with Lucy and Ted, and they debate what to do with her, as she seems to clearly be headed for a breakdown of some sort.
Martha is torn whether to stay where she is, or return to the cult, where she is more ‘accepted’ by her ersatz family than by her actual one. She also gets increasingly paranoid about whether Patrick and his allies are coming to take her back. Durkin does an excellent job of switching between the present and her past, gradually showing us more and more of the types of people she left behind, and what inevitably led to her needing to escape. This is the crux of the story, examining the mindset of a seemingly bright, but obviously aimless, young woman who is yearning for something that does not exist. While this sort of idea is basic fodder for storytelling, Durkin never dilutes the effect of his writing by excusing Martha’s behavior with hidden scars. We, much like Martha, don’t know why she is so adrift; it is the universal curse of youth which, for many of us, never ends.
Olsen is tremendous in her performance, showing a woman who almost seems to be in a walking coma, flitting between calm and rage without relying on cheap gimmicks to try to manipulate the audience. Hawkes, measured calm and curdled menace, adds another notch to his increasingly impressive resume, and Paulson is excellent as the older sister who wants to help her sister, but is helpless to do so, while also attempting to maintain a sense of her own self and the life that she, and her husband, have aspired to.
These are the kinds of roles, much like the one Jennifer Lawrence had last year in the terrific Winter’s Bone, that young actresses worth their salt are all desperate to get. It would be nice if they had a pile of scripts to pick from, but much as Lawrence went from an Oscar nomination to a comic book film, a quick glance at IMDB tells us that, for her next role, Elizabeth Olsen is starring in, guess what, a horror film. Well, maybe next year. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]