The Three Faces of Elizabeth Olsen

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A minor film begets a major new star

By Mark Peikert

Some film performances manage to be so memorable, so unexpected, that they render the less imaginative framework of the movie negligible. That's certainly the case with Elizabeth Olsen and Martha Marcy May Marlene, a sexy movie about violence, group sex, commune cults and yuppie ambition.

All of those are apart from Elizabeth's Martha, though. Escaping from an upstate New York farm where groups of young men and women are practically enslaved by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes, reprising his role from Winter's Bone in a smilier key) to the tranquility of her estranged sister's Connecticut vacation home, Martha finds the difference between memory and dreams beginning to dissolve. Her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and new brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) try to be supportive, but they are ultimately so disinterested in this feral young woman that their questions feel like cocktail conversation prompters. Neither of them wants to know the truth about the two years Martha was away, because neither of them wants to confront the possibility that she might have been in real danger. Far better to simply assume she was in a bad relationship for that period of time.

Of course, Martha was in a bad relationship, to some extent. Working and living in an environment where "cleansing" means being drugged and raped and women aren't allowed to eat until men have, Martha-dubbed Marcy May by Patrick-begins to find the place where she belongs. Eventually, her sense of serenity is shattered when violence abruptly erupts (writer-director Sam Durkin is unable to confidently yoke the minor-key emotions of an indie film with the psychological suspense of a thriller),and she ends up at Lucy and Ted's, walking around naked, crawling into bed with them while they have sex and generally acting like a neurasthenic.

Olsen makes every twitch, every sudden screaming fit seem both natural and inevitable; the world has become a dangerous place for Martha now and terror lurks around every corner. She knows what Patrick is capable of convincing his "family" to do (anyone who has ever read Helter Skelter will remain unsurprised by Durkin's twists), and Lucy and Ted's massive glass house offers slim protection.

Somehow, Olsen's performance almost erases the massive leaps of faith that Durkin's screenplay requires of the viewer. Would an 18-year-old girl, even one who has been subtly brainwashed for two years, ever forget that it's inappropriate to climb into bed next to her fornicating sister? Would Martha really be so incapable of caring for herself that she hides her urine-stained dress under her mattress? Just months before she was caring for babies and hanging laundry out to dry on a farm, between working in the garden and learning how to shoot. And Durkin's finale, a combination of the closing shot from Michael Clayton and the gotcha climax of every horror film of the last 40 years, cheapens what was, until that point, a slightly ludicrous but nonetheless absorbing look at returning to civilization from a cult and finding that civilization is little better as an option.

Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson are sisters in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

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