Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene: An 'alarming' achievement

While critics agree that the Olsen twins' sister, Elizabeth, shines as a young woman escaping a cult, the movie itself is getting mixed reviews

"Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene"
(Image credit: Facebook/Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene)

At the Sundance Film Festival last January, Elizabeth Olsen, the 22-year-old sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley (yes, those Olsens), was quickly crowned the fest's It girl for her star-is-born performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Olsen plays a young woman who flees a Manson-esque cult for the yuppie perils of her sister's Connecticut lake house in first-time writer/director Sean Durkin's fractured, elliptical psychological thriller. Some critics are hailing the film as "an alarming but gratifying achievement" and one of "the best films of 2011." Is it really so great, or is it merely an overrated indie darling?

I was blown away: "Two enthralling new talents announce themselves in Martha Marcy May Marlene," says Kyle Smith in the New York Post. Writer/director Sean Durkin has crafted a "potent psychological chiller," while Elizabeth Olsen is "spellbinding" in a star-making performance as the fragmented title character. The film is packed with disturbing echoes — from the Manson Family to China's one-child policy — that lend it unexpected weight. The protagonist's "shards of a shattered soul" are subtly examined, and her life's "horrific elements" are slowly revealed to maximum effect, leaving the audience devastated.

"A star is born"

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It's artful but frustrating: Martha Marcy May Marlene is an "impressively self-assured debut feature" that doesn't quite achieve "the emotional impact it intends," says A.O. Scott in The New York Times. The intriguing narrative structure switches back and forth between the protagonist's time in an agrarian cult and her escape to her married sister's Connecticut life, drawing parallels between the two worlds. It's often unclear which one Olsen is in, thanks to tight, disorienting close-ups, and ultimately, the film is "a bit too coy, too clever, and too diffident" for its own good.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)"

Don't be fooled: The film is just "too elliptical," says Dana Stevens at Slate. "It's one thing for a work of art to ambiguously reveal depths of emotion and meaning; it’s something else again to dangle the promise of meaning that never arrives." The film is beautifully shot and skillfully paced, but after an hour, its vagueness started to annoy me. While Olsen's "intense and arresting presence" almost manages to convince you that the movie is "more complex and nuanced than it really is," this is nothing more than a coy tease. Its satire of yuppie life doesn't quite hit home, and the charismatic cult leader character is sketched too thinly to resonate.

"Martha Marcy May Marlene"

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