Words: Rob DeStefano

Viewers were given audience choice award ballots upon exit from the theater and asked to lightly tear the edge that corresponded to their reaction: 1 believing it was a poor film and 5 thinking it was excellent. One patron refused to even entertain the vote, stating that her experience was terrible, which was not an option on the poll. Others, who were mostly older, mumbled a similar discontent. The post-film attitude was unlike the opening night of HIFF: there was no applause following Martha Marcy May Marlene. It is a difficult film to digest – I felt sick to my stomach after seeing it. That said, I didn’t hesitate to tear the sheet at the 5 mark.

It is not for everyone: it’s harrowing, stark, and unrelenting. Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha or Marcy or May or Marlene, whichever you prefer, who has abandoned a rural New York cult and seeks refuge with her sister Lucy and brother-in-law. The story cuts between her time spent with both parties, and it does so with the utmost fluidity.

The provocative and impeccably constructed storytelling is complimented and made so effective by Sean Durkin’s direction: the producer behind 2008’s celebrated indie work Afterschool. This is a director who masters sound and imagery – pay attention to his framing choices. He brings out phenomenal performances not just from Olsen, but the entire cast – highlighting Sarah Paulson as Lucy and John Hawkes as Patrick the clan master. Martha Marcy May Marlene grabbed my attention from the first frame and held it till the last. It will be interesting to see what direction Olsen and Durkin move next.

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