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 is 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), to seek refuge with her 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, is an experience; it’s 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.
And it is fascinating to place Olsen’s effort within a larger framework because she is the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, the Full House twins that became a franchise, a brand unto themselves that took them beyond all means and considerations. It is not hard to imagine the two of them sucking all of the attention, light, air and, honestly, the very life out of any room or situation. So, Elizabeth would know a thing or two about holding her breath, diving below the surface, deeper and deeper away, into a core that belongs only to her.
In terms of the film and her performance though, there is possibility that there is no core, no center, no self to define in this character. That may be what is so alluring about Patrick. He has that gravitational pull, that black hole force of a personality. He strips those around him of their humanity, the sense of appreciating the highs and lows, the struggle in the face of “inevitable death” (to borrow a notion from academic philosopher Cornel West), and creates a myth, an identity for them, which we see him doing to/for Martha.
Ah, the delicious parallels. Elizabeth and her sisters. Martha and Patrick. Elizabeth and Hawkes, who has fast-tracked his way into that quiet explosive force that seeps into the fabric of a narrative, that transforms a supporting character as conceived on the page into a dominating presence.
Where are we?
In the company of a young woman with the ability to lose herself completely and engagingly, right before our very eyes. That sounds like a devilish trick, a star-making turn that will have us searching for new names and superlatives to bestow on Elizabeth Olsen. (tt stern-enzi)