Why I love Elizabeth Olsen’s performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Before she became a bona fide movie star, Olsen announced herself as an actor with fearless instincts in Sean Durkin’s directorial debut.


Sophie Monks Kaufman


“Martha” is her real name, “Marcy May” is the name given to her by abusive cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and “Marlene” is the code name that all female cult members assume when dealing with outsiders. Holding this fragmented identity together is Elizabeth Olsen. Back in 2011, before she was known for being the MCU’s Scarlet Witch with her own spinoff in WandaVision, she was known merely as the sister of celebrity twins Mary-Kate and Ashley. That is, until Sean Durkin’s debut feature unveiled her as an actor with fearless instincts, capable of showing the impact of trauma with a naturalism that ripples outwards like the aftermath of a rock thrown in the water.

The film begins with a dawn escape, as Martha flees the farmhouse where she lives with a “family” of pale, bedraggled young men and women. One calls after her “Marcy May!” and soon she is hiding in the woods as these apparitions go on the hunt. From town, she calls her estranged sister from a pay phone, barely able to string a sentence together and constantly on the verge of hanging up, dissuaded only by the forceful care on the other end. Some time later Lucy (Sarah Paulson) appears in a car to drive them to the Connecticut lake-house she shares with English husband, Ted (Hugh Dancey).

This arrival should mean relief, yet dread is coiled across the rest of the film. Durkin cuts between the present and the past, dropping Martha’s backstory into place through anecdotes that visually match the new location. Although Lucy is happy to be reunited with her sister and Ted tries to be supportive, Martha’s unwillingness to talk about where she’s been since dropping off the map two years ago, coupled with her anti-social behaviour and strange remarks leads to concern from her hosts.

Only the viewer is privy to the source of these remarks and behaviours. When Martha strips butt naked to jump in the lake in front of Ted and assorted members of the public, (“interesting choice of swimwear,” he quips) Lucy is appalled, while we see that swimming naked in the river was customary in the cult where a return to nature was a way of life.

Durkin’s obsessive research into cults (the Manson family, Jonestown, the Unification Church of the United States and David Koresh) manifests not in a regurgitated glut of encyclopedic knowledge but in throwaway lifestyle details that cut deep. Cult members are restricted to one meal a day which, coupled with new names, weakens their grasp on reality. The film builds to show systematic drug-induced rape and a violent home invasion, yet Martha is at first introduced to an idyllic commune powered by love and gardening. It is framed as a sanctuary for vulnerable people whom life has left behind.

In these early scenes, Olsen shows us an amenable and trusting young woman with a sharp sense of humour. This side emerges for flashes in the present timeline as Ted teaches her to drive a boat on the lake and she enjoys a sisterly rapport with Lucy, even as they navigate their own difficult familial background. Durkin’s screenplay deftly and deliberately drops in all the context we need to understand how Martha got lost, and not an iota more. This is an impressionistic rendering of PTSD and the way it leaves loved ones baffled.

Olsen gives a performance that swings from there to not there. One moment she is charismatic; the next vacant; the next terrified. There is an extraordinary lack of vanity or affect to her movements. She has the body of a pin-up yet her approach to nudity is childlike, holding limbs bolt upright as she strips, like a little girl at bedtime. This is both troubling and inspires a heartbreaking tenderness for this women with four names but no coherent sense of self.

In the decade since Martha Marcy May Marlene’s release, the discourse has increasingly wrangled over our cultural obsession with violent men and our comparative neglect of the victim’s experience. Straight out of the gate, Olsen gave us a psychologically complicated victim within a film that holds on to the mystery of how these individual tragedies unfold. Until the final shot, multiple story readings are possible and the leading lady is attuned to this ambiguity, playing her role like a veteran rather than an ingenue.

Despite the elevated profile Olsen now enjoys, it’s hard to name a film or TV show that has managed to harness her capabilities in the way that her breakout role did. Sure, watching her morph from beaming megawatt movie star to raging, grief-stricken anti-hero in her role as Scarlet Witch is a powerful spectacle, but to see where her talent stems from, you’ve got to go back to the start.

Published 26 Aug 2021

Tags: Elizabeth Olsen Martha Marcy May Marlene Sean Durkin

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