Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Immersed in a chilly gloom, this impressive first film from newbie director Sean Durkin has a mood that steals into every pore until you’re completely immersed in it. Small wonder Durkin nabbed a best director trophy at Sundance 2011.

He’s not the only one taking a notable first curtsy, though. Much has already been made of Elizabeth Olsen’s shivery central turn as Martha – a performance so intelligently crafted that nobody could ever have expected it from the girl whose siblings are the doll-like Olsen twins.

All the great buzz words apply to Olsen’s portrayal of a troubled young woman who escapes the clutches of an isolated cult – fearless, mesmerising, determined. It’s the kind of multi-faceted display you’d expect from a long-established awards-grabber, not a fresh-on-the-scene first-timer, and Olsen easily marks herself out as somebody to keep a steady eye on.

Helping her out with the heavy lifting is the more experienced but by no means less impressive John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), who chills right to the core as a cult leader who exploits his power to insidious ends. Hard to believe that just a decade ago he was bit playing in dross like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.

As sparse and internal as MMMM is, there’s a maelstrom of hot issues bubbling under its deceptively still surface. What is normality? Who controls whom? How are the demands and rotes of society any different to the rituals of a cult? Weaving between Martha’s past in the cult (where she was known as May) and her present holing up with her sister (Sarah Paulson), Durkin expertly blurs the temporal boundaries until we tumble headfirst into the claustrophobic, foreboding climax.

MMMM won’t be for everyone. It’s ponderous and often slow (we’ll say ‘measured’). But as a dark and dreamy study of a whole mess of fascinating issues, not to mention a thrilling debut for Durkin and Olsen, it’s indie cinema at its bleak best. 4/5

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