Writer-director Sean Durkin introduces Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as a member of a commune, one of the compliant women who have surrendered to the domestic duties, the listless routine, the second-class status, and the waiting to share the bed of Patrick (John Hawkes), the paterfamilias of this clan. And then, in a fit of spontaneous action, a random burst of energy, Martha bolts into the woods and wanders away, but it's immediately clear that she hasn’t escaped; she isn’t free. The ties still bind her body, mind and spirit.
She calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), seeks refuges with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). “Where are we,” she asks, and then, “How far are we from yesterday?” Clearly not far enough. Yesterday is the never-ending present for Martha, the routine is more than memory; it is the air she breathes and what has come to sustain her.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, as an experience, is about watching Martha attempt to hold her breath underwater. How long can she last before she breaks the surface and replenishes her oxygen-depleted lungs? From a performance standpoint, Olsen is a quiet revelation. She doesn’t force herself through a single frame. After taking that last gulp of air, she sinks as if tied to a great weight, but she doesn’t struggle or waste that breath. She watches each moment pass; this is her life flashing before her and she doesn’t miss a second. It could be viewed as a passive effort, but she trains us, reorients the audience to how difficult it can be to find one’s true self. Grade: A-
Opens Nov. 11. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.