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The Year’s Most Overlooked MMMMovie?

December 16, 2011

I finally caught up with Martha Marcy May Marlene today… and man, what I (and the rest of America) have been missing! The buzz around Elizabeth Olsen’s performance when the film was released a few months ago—most of which amounted to “Can you believe Mary-Kate and Ashley’s sister can actually act?”—didn’t translate into box-office dollars, and Olsen’s Oscar-nomination chances are near zero now that she’s been passed over by the Golden Globes and Independent Spirit and SAG Awards. (She did win Best Actress from the Phoenix and San Diego Film Critics, however.) But this film deserves a serious look, and not just for Olsen’s work, as mind-blowingly good as it is.

This is a psychological thriller in the best sense of the phrase—the kind of movie that doesn’t just put you inside the head of a mentally ill person but makes you wonder if you might be going nuts yourself. (Take Shelter attempted to pull off a similar feat, with less successful results.) Olsen stars as an emotionally scarred woman who escapes from a murderous cult and attempts to reintegrate herself into society via her long-estranged yuppie sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). But her mind—and the movie—keeps flashing back to her time in the woods under the control of a Manson-like leader (the always-riveting Winter’s Bone and Deadwood vet John Hawkes, who also merits Oscar consideration).

Writer-director Sean Durkin displays such a sure hand—he’s like Luis Buñuel crossed with Alfred Hitchcock—that it’s hard to believe this is his first full-length film. Rather than relying on cheap shock tactics, like American Horror Story (on which Paulson also appears), he builds suspense through hauntingly subtle images and brilliantly disorienting editing juxtapositions.

So why didn’t the movie make more of a splash? I blame the horrible title. Martha Marcy May Marlene sounds like some kind of a madcap romp. This movie is mad all right, but not in the way you might expect.

Did you see Martha Marcy May Marlene? If not, why not?

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