Elizabeth Olsen Delivers Star-Making Performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene

​On a Monday in late August, Elizabeth Olsen -- younger sister of the infamous Olsen twins -- and writer/director Sean Durkin sat beneath the screen at Harkins Camelview. 

They were in Phoenix to promote the unfortunately titled Martha Marcy May Marlene, in limited release beginning today (keep an eye out, it should reach the Phoenix area soon). And the film has made fast stars of newcomers Durkin and Olsen, with Durkin taking the U.S. Directing Award for Best Drama at Sundance.

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins when Olsen (as each of the names, but we'll call her Martha) gets out of bed very early one morning and flees the cult she's been living with in the Catskill Mountains. She calls her estranged older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes her in. Throughout the next few weeks, Martha is disturbed by memories of her time with the cult as well as new fears that cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) will find her and take her back. 

Meanwhile, Lucy and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) begin to fall apart as they try to cope with Martha's disruption of their wealthy, pristine life.

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You can see how often the word "cult" comes up in a summary of the film, yet Olsen said during an in-theater Q&A that it wasn't at all used during filming. "It wasn't like a banned word on set," she says, "it was just a word that we didn't need to use." Hawkes, clearly channeling his role as frighteningly charismatic patriarch, used the word "family" on set. 

It is no exaggeration to say that Olsen is the breakout star of the film. She is supported by Durkin's script and direction - the gritty feel of the scenes in the Catskills is particularly memorable - but she is the best reason to see the film. Her performance, so often contained within searching looks rather than dialogue, is profound; she is at once a young woman striving to find her place in the world, striving to survive, and a kind of lost, feral child.

Elizabeth Olsen, as Martha, is lost in the world of older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) after escaping the cult.
Elizabeth Olsen, as Martha, is lost in the world of older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) after escaping the cult.
Fox Searchlight Pictures

So much of the film's meaning takes place at that intersection between the life Martha lived in the Catskills and her sister's firm footing in American consumer culture. While Durkin says he eschewed the calls to own political views at Cannes (oh, the French), he allows Martha to spar with Ted over the excess he finds necessary for comfortable life. 

Olsen says it was important for her to figure out in Martha's life what void the cult filled, but she suggests this is also part of a broader void felt by the youth of today and "their need to hold onto something different." As heinous as the cult is, it is still treated in the film with a nuanced frame that doesn't cut out the good moments, as when Martha learns to garden.

You have to give credit to Durkin and Olsen alike for breaching the wide shadow cast by Winter's Bone, the Sundance favorite set in the Ozarks that launched Jennifer Lawrence's career (and also coincidentally starred John Hawkes). As another indie film with much the same tempered, cold feel and featuring a breakout performance by a young actress, Martha Marcy May Marlene could have been lost in comparison to the critics' rightful darling - just as the Truman Capote biopic Infamous was completely lost in the shadow of Capote. What remains to be seen is whether this film will serve to catapult Olsen to the heights Lawrence (who recently starred in X-Men: First Class) has since achieved

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