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Powerful, palpable and downright haunting, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a staggering cinematic achievement. It is the feature debut of writer-director Sean Durkin as well as the unveiling of a striking new onscreen talent in Elizabeth Olsen. Why the alliterative title? You’ll find out, as this taut psychological thriller works its way under your skin and into your nightmares.
Olsen is sensational in her “eponymous” role as a young woman who escapes from a cult led by the sinewy and sinister Patrick (a routinely brilliant John Hawkes). Fleeing into the concerned and confused arms of her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her fiancé (Hugh Dancy), Martha recuperates in the lap of luxury, only to be terrorised by her memories, and maybe even her surroundings.
Durkin mixes fear, memory and delusion into a heady concoction that he spins out into a gorgeously slow and enthralling mosaic. Jody Lee Lipes’ beautifully unsettling cinematography and the eerie elisions between past and present underscore Olsen’s captivating portrayal of a frayed but erstwhile searching psyche. Durkin curiously sidesteps moralising the cult, instead opting to lock his audience in with the fractured mind of his heroine.