Sometimes a film is so effective at creating tension and suspense that the viewing experience becomes physically uncomfortable. The daring new film Martha Marcy May Marlene does just that. It's so intensely gripping theaters should offer Xanax and counseling to their patrons as they leave.
The film tells the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who has just fled from the cult of which she was a member for the past two years. Desperate and alone, she calls her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help. Lucy takes Martha to her lake house in Connecticut where she and her husband go to unwind, but Martha's presence drives a wedge into the serenity the couple is used to.
Though Lucy is initially happy to see her sister for the first time in two years, it becomes increasingly clear that something is not right. Martha barely eats, refuses to talk about her past and says grossly inappropriate things.
Throughout Martha's struggle to adapt to living in the real world, audiences see flashbacks of her time in the cult. The flashbacks reveal that the leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), is a seemingly kind man who invites Martha to stay on his idyllic farm in the Catskills. Patrick provides her with guidance, shelter and the new identity of "Marcy May." Everything seems perfect, but as more flashbacks play out audience members learn of the terrors Martha has endured.
Olsen, the younger sister of the notorious Olsen Twins, plays Martha with an impeccable skill that has the potential to make her a star. In lesser hands Martha would have been overacted and less emotionally resonant. There is a scene where Patrick plays a song on guitar that he wrote for "Marcy May," and for almost an entire minute we only see Martha's face reacting to the lyrics. Olsen conveys so much genuine emotion in this scene, she transcends merely acting.
Hawkes gives an equally chilling performance. He exudes charisma while being tranquilly malicious. His character is able to manipulate his followers to believe exactly what he wants without so much as raising his voice.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is effective because it relishes in the quiet, utilizing the ambient noises of the forest and trees as a way to build tension and dread. This comes to a head in the film's final shot, the crushing ambiguity of which will leave audiences either enthralled or infuriated – and possibly both. Yet, for a film that succeeds by never letting its viewers know exactly what's going on, the end fits.
This is without a doubt one of the best films of the year. It will stay in your head for weeks, no matter how hard you try to shake it off.