‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’: The Cult Film with a Following

Elizabeth Olsen, Sean Durkin (Jason Merritt, Toby Canham/Getty)

Elizabeth Olsen’s poise and confidence shouldn’t have surprised me.

As the younger sister of Hollywood’s most famous twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the 22-year-old actress is no stranger to the cameras, the questions, the attention. Still, somehow, I was caught off guard by how composed the stunning young woman appeared as she sat across from me, nonchalantly stirring a cup of hot tea.

Olsen was accompanied to our interview by Sean Durkin (pictured), the 29-year-old director of her critically acclaimed indie drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” The film, which opened in limited release October 21, is Olsen’s second full-length feature and Durkin’s full-length directorial debut. Less than 24 hours before this September meeting, the pair appeared at a Philadelphia screening of their movie, graciously agreeing to answer questions for an eclectic and particularly critical audience.

Noting one query about the film’s occasionally dim lighting, I began my interview by expressing concern that the criticism made the untested filmmaker and his rising starlet uncomfortable.

“We loved it,” Olsen said without hesitation.

“That was the most fun Q&A, the best Q&A I’ve ever had,” Durkin added.

As an up and coming actress, Elizabeth faces the unique challenge of not only rising above Hollywood’s horde of thirsty thespians, but also creating an identity separate from her look-alike siblings, who have been a part of the pop culture fabric for nearly 25 years. But although her family ties are an inevitable obstacle, Olsen says she’s in no rush to emancipate. Yet.

“I’ve never tried to differentiate from anything that’s already happened to my family,” Olsen told me. “We’re all so close and there’s no reason to feel like I need to be separate and have separate worlds. I knew I wanted to [act] and I always knew that, when I did, that it was going to be something that I would have to deal with. So that’s what I’m dealing with now. And in five years, I probably won’t.”

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is the first step in Olsen’s five-year journey towards independence. The film focuses on a young girl named Martha (Olsen) who escapes from an abusive cult in the Catskill Mountains and reunites with her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Martha attempts to assimilate into her sister’s family, which includes Lucy’s stuffy husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), but is plagued by emotional scarring, vivid delusions and the constant paranoia that her former adopted family will show up to retrieve her.

The film is good. Very good. And, at the risk of being excessively trite, Elizabeth is very good in it. Her performance is deeply emotional, hauntingly nuanced and mature beyond her years. As the acutely damaged Martha keeps her sister at arm’s length, so does Durkin with his audience, fearlessly abstaining from hand-feeding answers in favor of telling the story through his highly capable stars. Olsen, as the director bluntly put it, was simply the most capable of the actresses he auditioned for this movie.

“I thought that Martha needed to have a real strength and vibrance to her,” Durkin said. “She’s so shut off and damaged that, if she is just shut off and damaged, there’s nothing there. I thought [Elizabeth] had something that, if we took her vibrance and strength that she has as a person — which is abundantly clear after spending five minutes with her — you would somehow feel it and that would give [Martha] a depth and complexity.”

Deep. Complex. Bipolar. These are all words that describe Martha, who treads a fine line between sympathetic antagonist and unwitting villain, whose poisoned mind aims unfiltered vitriol at her helpless sister.

“For me, it was important that she’s not just a victim, because that’s not the case,” Durkin explained. “She’s also responsible for the things that she does to other people.”

“The moments where she does act out that seem questionable, I think, come from a very specific place and there’s a reason for it,” Olsen added. “Everyone has those moments and, in films, when we’re supposed to be on someone’s side, those characters don’t really have them full-heartedly. I’m sure I’ve said some pretty awful things to the people I’m closest to, just because they’re the safest people to say that to because they’ll forgive you. So, I think it makes [Martha] more real.”

The characterization worked and the film industry has taken notice. Both Durkin and Olsen have received early Oscar buzz for their respective roles in the movie, though the mere mention of it made Sean cover his ears and Elizabeth scoff.

“[That] isn’t even real,” she said frankly.

Critics have compared “Martha Marcy May Marlene” to last year’s Ozark Mountain indie hit “Winter’s Bone,” which earned its 20-year-old leading lady Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar nomination.

Durkin continued to dismiss the buzz, saying, “My feeling is, we made a movie …”

“That we loved,” Olsen interjected.

“That we loved, and we didn’t think one day past when we were ending,” he finished. “That’s it. You just focus on the movie and you do your job and then you put it out and whatever happens, happens.”

At first glance, it looks like big things are about to “happen” for Elizabeth Olsen. And, if it’s not meant to be this time around, well, she’s still got four more years to figure it out.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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