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Olsen Shines in Cult Psychological Thriller

John Hawkes portrays a cult leader and Elizabeth Olsen is the young woman who escapes him in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
John Hawkes portrays a cult leader and Elizabeth Olsen is the young woman who escapes him in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

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Alan Silverman

Oscar buzz surrounds the star of a new psychological thriller about a young woman who escapes a cult in "Martha Marcy May Marlene."

Martha is a troubled woman in her 20s when she first meets Patrick, the charismatic leader of a cult in rural upstate New York.

But after living with the group, Martha - or Marcy May, as they rename her - begins to have fears and concerns. She escapes and returns to her sister, from whom she has been estranged for three years.

She may have run away from the cult, but Martha hasn't escaped its psychological effects.

Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of former teenage idols Mary Kate and Ashley, stars as Martha and is getting rave reviews. Although the character of Martha is based on young women who have been members of cults, Olsen says she chose not to meet them before making the film.

"I tried to focus on what was on the page," she says. "If I were to have talked to someone who inspired some of the events and emotions in the story, I would feel like I owed them reverence in a weird way. I'd want to tell their story and this is a made-up, imaginary situation."

Elizabeth Olsen (left) and Sarah Paulson, as the sister who takes her in, in "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
Elizabeth Olsen (left) and Sarah Paulson, as the sister who takes her in, in "Martha Marcy May Marlene."

John Hawkes co-stars as Patrick, the seductive and dangerous leader of the underground community. "I wasn't interested in a movie about cults, and then I read the script and the word 'cult' is nowhere in it. That led me to begin to call it a community and try to develop that idea more in my mind."

Sean Durkin wrote and directed "Martha Marcy May Marlene," which was shot on location in the mountains of upstate New York. While it was inspired by the real-life experiences of several women, Durkin believes the impact of their experiences relates to a wide range of situations.

"I have never been in a cult or come across one, but I do know people who have been addicted to drugs or are alcoholics or are in abusive relationships," Durkin says. "Most people do know someone like that and how many of their families step in right away and say 'Okay, we're going to take care of it?' I feel like people don't confront these issues. It takes a long time to actually get there."

Where it actually gets disturbs some viewers because Durkin ends "Martha Marcy May Marlene" rather abruptly.

But Olsen says it's in keeping with the film's realism.

"I think a lot of times we go to films to have nice, fixed story because we don't have that in our own lives. There is no fixed ending in any day of our lives. You don't get that in this movie, and I appreciate that."

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