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Cult of Personality Disorder

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Jody Lee Lipes/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Excuse the title. It is confusing, long-winded, and it conjures images of haughty avant-garde cinema at its worst. A film’s title is supposed to lure in the viewer — it is a brand name — and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” reads like a list of names for Jewish grandmothers. So roll your eyes and shake your head, but then get over it quickly, because if you can look past the title, you will be rewarded with one of the best films of the year.

The narrative begins as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) runs away from a cult and moves in to her sister’s lakefront vacation house in Connecticut. Martha is clearly a disturbed young woman. She does not reveal much about her past to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), or Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy); but her uneasiness hints at earlier trauma.

As the story progresses, the plot threads in flashback sequences of Martha’s life in the cult. It turns out the cult’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), changes her name to Marcy May because he likes how it sounds better than Martha. He also takes her virginity with the aid of a date-rape drug and tries to inspire her to become the leader of the females in the cult. Patrick does not spew a lot of crazy political rhetoric; instead, he leads by example and subtly attempts to reeducate the members of the cult.

Lucy and Ted gradually lose patience with Martha’s odd behavior. It is clear that Martha is broken mentally and struggles to assimilate into her sister’s comfortable life of luxury after being subjected to the extreme socialist practices of the cult. This tension is present throughout the movie and provides more than enough momentum to keep the viewer’s attention from beginning to end.

The acting is superb. Ms. Olsen — the younger, more talented sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley — brings a combination of wholesomeness and mystery that is perfect for the role. She is able to switch between eerie calm and outbursts of anger with ease. If there were justice in Hollywood, Ms. Olsen would be seriously considered for an Academy Award nomination.

Ms. Paulson and Mr. Dancy are both good, but the other standout is Mr. Hawkes. He plays the role of Patrick with a quiet menace. His character serves as the gravity for all of the horror in the film; and there are some shocking scenes that will stay with you past the end credits. Patrick is an extremely well-developed villain.

Surprisingly, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was written and directed by rookie Sean Durkin. Mr. Durkin handles tough subject matter with ideal subtlety and confidence, something many veteran directors fail to do. The story works so well because it raises questions instead of giving answers. For example, Patrick may be a wicked man, but his beliefs are shaped with rationality. Is it wrong to agree with his ideas? At what point is authority too extreme?

Mr. Durkin’s visual style gives the audience time to think about these questions. The aesthetic is very naturalistic, evoking comparisons to the organic approach used by Derek Cianfrance in “Blue Valentine.” All of his characters are nuanced and fully developed. This is not just a great debut; it is a great film, period — other than the title.


Opens on Oct. 21 in the United States and on Feb. 3, 2012 in Britain.

Written and directed by Sean Durkin; director of photography, Jody Lee Lipes; edited by Zac Stuart-Pontier; music by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi; production design by Chad Keith; costumes by David Tabbert; produced by Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Chris Maybach and Patrick Cunningham; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Elizabeth Olsen (Martha), Christopher Abbott (Max), Brady Corbet (Watts), Hugh Dancy (Ted), Maria Dizzia (Katie), Julia Garner (Sarah), John Hawkes (Patrick), Louisa Krause (Zoe) and Sarah Paulson (Lucy).


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