Celebrities from a young age, the inseparable twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have made names for themselves. But in the past five years, a new Olsen has emerged into the spotlight.
In her first film as an adult, Elizabeth, the Twins’ younger sister, has already surpassed the two in critical acclaim.
While you may recognize her from the new Avengers movie, Olsen’s breakthrough role was as the lead actress in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
And for her first film (second if you count her role in “How the West Was Won” as “girl in car”), Olsen acts remarkably well – as a complicated lead no less.
Sean Durkin’s film tells the story not just of Martha’s (Olsen) life as a member of an abusive cult in the Catskill Mountains but also of her life after leaving.
But the story doesn’t play out chronologically.
The film begins with Martha’s escape from the cult, but after she seeks refuge with her sister and brother-in-law, Durkin will often cleverly cut to her time as a member.
Subsequently, Durkin will fluidly cut back to the present.
And by fluid, clever cuts I mean scenes move seamlessly between time periods – Martha, safe and sound with her sister, will jump into a lake, but in midair the scene will change to a memory of her swimming with the cult.
The effect is elegant, cool and telling.
This technique immerses the audience in Martha’s PTSD-like hysteria.
Martha suspiciously asks the bartender at her sister’s house party what his name is and what he’s doing there. She then throws her glass down, running away screaming in fear, as she thinks the bartender is a cult member, scheming to take her back.
And while Martha’s sister and brother-in-law, who don’t know about Martha’s past, have trouble understanding why she’s crazy, her erratic attitude is more than understandable.
On the surface and in the beginning, the cult Martha joins seems normal – well, as normal as cults come.
Everyone is very friendly, sharing everything and growing their own food.
But thanks to the cult’s leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), things get creepy and vile pretty fast.
The audience eventually learns that rape is part of the cult’s initiation, and initiates are coaxed to drink an “herbal cleanse,” which is drugged.
A disturbing paternal figure, Patrick manipulates his members by both coddling and scolding.
As Martha evolves within the cult, from an innocent newcomer to a devout follower to the eventual skeptic, Olsen admirably covers a range of emotions.
Rarely are first roles this successful, but Olsen’s dynamic, nuanced performance compares to that of a seasoned actress.
Devout-cult Martha is just as believable as frightened ex-cult Martha, and the range is impressive.
But don’t just take it from me – Durkin won the directing award at Sundance and Olsen won a multitude of awards for her performance.
Mary-Kate and Ashley have a thing or two to learn from their little sister.