Elizabeth Olsen has a sort of Maggie Gyllenhaal thing going on.

2011 is a year of great, powerful female performances in films. Not that the men are slacking off or anything as 2011 is also full of demonstrable improvements, surprises, and breakout performances for them too. Still, everybody knows that actresses have a harder time in the movies, with fewer plum roles going to them and far fewer opportunities to center a film that isn’t some dumbfuck romcom. Martha Marcy May Marlene is fully invested in the lead role which Elizabeth Olsen, youngest Olsen sister and coming from nowhere, completely owns. It’s a lot more subtle than Rooney Mara’s work, truth be told, but no less crucial to her respective film. If I had to call the best performance by an actress that I’ve seen this year, I’d be hard pressed to decide between Olsen and Mara.

That said, Martha Marcy May Marlene may be a bit too ephemeral of a film to completely support what Olsen is doing. It’s a very interesting film, no doubt, but also sketchy about its text in an effort to be as slippery and elusive as a dream while also maintaining a highly impressionistic thematic drive. In other words, there’s not much of a plot and the storytelling is intentionally unreliable which leaves the audiences with impressions, uncertainty, and suspicions which closely match that of Olsen’s appropriately elusive character.The film brushes with explorations of morality, violence, and existentialism without trying to be very definitive.

Called by different names, Olsen’s doe-eyed protagonist is most often “Martha” as she is known to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and so that’s what I’ll go by. The story of Martha is delivered to us as a dual-narrative which inter-cuts between time and place in a methodical, deliberate fashion which is meant to underline the influence of one over the other. On one end, Martha lived with a kind of commune bound together by Patrick (John Hawkes) as a clan patriarch. On the other, Martha has escaped the commune, which is pretty much a cult of personality around Patrick and his quasi-Buddhist preaching, and gone to her sister for refuge. The trouble is, Martha is still also Marcy May, the name and persona given her by Patrick and perhaps she is also Marlene, a character in the duplicity created to protect the commune from outsiders. The life she led in the commune has left her with assumptions, programming, and fears that invade the inversely idyllic life offered by Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).

Lucy and Ted are self-absorbed yuppies that represent some of what Patrick’s little clan is nominally against. They are also too caught up in their own shit to effectively deal with Martha’s increasingly erratic behavior. Not that Martha helps. She lies and obfuscates or hides behind rhetoric to avoid their inevitable questions and to justify her paranoia which increases in the film parallel to our learning about the sequence of events in the commune that led to her escape. So Martha is inscrutable to everyone around her in the present of the film, made of something much more resolute and firm than she is when she’s with the commune and their many lessons and highly objectionable, misogynistic customs, shape her. She’s meant to be somewhat inscrutable to the audience as well, an unreliable narrator of sorts though she doesn’t directly narrate anything at all.

Hawkes is little-seen but intensely present in the film, playing a vaguely charismatic character who nonetheless represents significant danger to others as he calls to mind men like Charles Manson with his followers not unlike what I imagine the Manson Family to have been like.

By now it should be clear that this a film with a lot left up to audience interpretation. Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t come out and tell us whether or not we can trust Martha’s memory nor her paranoia. Is the threat she feels looming over her by the end of her time with her sister a real one? Is she simply lashing out because she knows Lucy and Ted are going to institutionalize her, the fear of Patrick and his people finding her simply a reflection of her fear of that?

Because of this, the film is one of those that will say different things to different people and possibly different things to you in subsequent viewings. Olsen’s performance is enthralling enough that a rewatch would be as much about getting more into it as about trying to figure out who she is and what’s really going on with her.

I couldn’t really figure out what was supposed to be so charismatic about Patrick until this scene.

My interpretation is that the dangers are real. Patrick is a narcissist who uses the cult to create a sort of harem. As the movie progresses, we get all the evidence we need for at least that much. Martha was indoctrinated and as her indoctrination erodes, her grip on reality slips and she is completely alone with that. By choice, yes, but faking it til she made it worked with the commune so why not with her own sister? There’s a self-assured focus in her that may not be entirely sincere, but she goes for it anyway and rarely shows how deeply damaged she really is.

You can see that Martha is/was a lost soul when she hooked up with the commune. She might have been something of a laid back free spirit, but there’s so much that’s sinister about how she is broken down and rebuilt by the clan’s rituals (spoiler: Patrick gets to enact Primae Noctis with new ladies in the clan). Soon she is reciting their maxims back to them and to the newer members who reflect the position she once had. The way cults work is subtly but masterfully displayed in this stuff, though with so little fanfare or underscoring that it’s easy to miss just how that affects everything else. Later, she resorts to those maxims when she is challenged by Lucy or Ted and while at one moment she’ll be eerily confident in them and herself, the next she’ll be shrill and desperate and lost all over again. Until towards the end of the film, much of what you can get out of the character is primarily internal with Olsen telling us the story with subtle facial tics, body language, and her very expressive mouth and eyes.

I’d say Martha Marcy May Marlene is a movie for the patient except for that it’s non-linear structure is so well implemented and its heroine so well performed. Olsen will keep you invested even if the plot (and lack thereof) frustrates and, if character studies with high levels of interpretation are your thing, there’s a lot going on to bite into and chew in the subtext whether you’re more interested in Martha’s identity issues or the creepy mechanics of the cult.

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