By Elise Chamberlain

Upon hearing the surname ‘Olsen’, many people automatically think ‘twins’. This is all set to change with the release of Sean Durkin’s skin-tingling Martha Marcy May Marlene. In this psychological thriller the youngest Olsen sibling steps out from the shadow of her sisters’ fame marking herself as one to watch this year. From the discordant music accompanying the opening credits to its close this film is as chilling as it is inconclusive. Far from the confines of the stereotypical cult film, Durkin has created something insidious – a film about the strongholds and dangers of escapism, in this case, to a cult.

Martha (Olsen) has a troubled upbringing darkened by death and loss. When her only sibling leaves for university she, crippled with loneliness and abandoned to solitude and bitterness, escapes every aspect of normal family life which has thus far disappointed her and joins a cult.

Living on a farm in upstate New York, the people are self-sufficient, surviving off what they grow and can make. Their meals are eaten in silence – the women lining the steps of the staircase draped across one another and lost in their thoughts, only eating once the men have finished their meal. Bedrooms are littered with beds, clothes are shared by all as are sexual partners and every notion of normality or social boundary is broken and fractured. You can almost smell the dusty gravel which clings to the sweaty bodies of all who work the farm and despite being surrounded by countryside, the house seems cramped, damp and creaking under the weight of the multitude of bodies it bears. We realise from the start that something is amiss when Martha runs from the house, tearing into a nearby forest for solitude only to be swiftly followed by her housemates.

It is only when Martha is picked up by her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) that the extent of her departure from ‘normal’ society becomes clear. Paulson and Olsen work together seamlessly, portraying the struggle of two sisters-come-strangers, who living worlds apart both psychologically and physically, attempt to unify. Both actresses give flawless performances; Olsen as the troubled girl struggling to escape the mental harness the cult has over her and Paulson, the elder sibling attempting to rid herself of a lifetime of self-inflicted blame for her sister’s troubles.

Martha is haunted by her past life among the cult. We slip with her between the present, staying with her sister in a newly renovated lake house, and past. She continually struggles to deal with the traumas she has endured, at times yearning for her former life while simultaneously making an effort to abandon it.

Martha is rechristened Marcy May by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) and remains torn between her rebirth into the cult, which offers her the security of family, even if in a most incestuous and disjointed form, and her emotional intuition that she doesn’t quite belong there. John Hawkes gives a powerful performance as the silent but forbidding cult leader Patrick. Unkempt, wiry and often dressed in little more than trousers and a vest, Hawkes effortlessly exposes the trickery and manipulative tactics used by the psychologically strong to prey on the psychologically weak. 

With Martha Marcy May Marlene Durkin has created something disturbing and invasive. Bordering tantalisingly on uncomfortable, this film is set to thrill audiences the world over while introducing Olsen sibling number three into the world of cinema.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.