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Martha Marcy May Marlene
003.jpg Original Release: October 21, 2011 (United States)
Genre: Drama | Mystery | Thriller
Running time: 102 minutes
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin
Produced by: Daniel Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Budget: $600,000
Box Office: $5.4 million

After not hearing from her in two years, Lucy receives a telephone call from her only sibling, younger Martha, who eventually accepts Lucy’s offer to come pick her up. Martha, who only mentions that she was living with a boyfriend in upstate New York, ends up staying with Lucy and her new husband, Ted, an architect, in their rented Connecticut lake-front recreational home. During her stay with them, Martha seems unfocused about what she will do with her life. She also displays inappropriate behavior, not matching anything resembling western convention. Lucy doesn’t press Martha on the root cause of the behavior because of their family history, and Lucy’s resulting want to provide unconditional support and love to her only family. Ted tolerates the behavior if only to keep Lucy happy. What Martha has not told them is that those two years she was renamed Marcy May and were spent with a cult, her behavior being what she was indoctrinated into as being what was done with that group. Situations with Lucy and Ted trigger those memories for Martha and resulting behavior. Even in her brainwashed state, Martha became to realize that certain actions by the cult were not what she knew to be right, and was able to escape from them. But as her time with Lucy and Ted progresses, Martha begins to lose track of what memories are real and what are phantom, which is exacerbated by her belief that the cult is after her. In her paranoid state, Martha becomes a risk not only to Lucy and Ted but to herself.

Cast & Characters

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha/Marcy May/”Marlene Lewis”), John Hawkes (Patrick), Sarah Paulson (Lucy), Hugh Dancy (Ted), Brady Corbet (Watts), Christopher Abbott (Max), Michael Chmiel (Scruffy man), Maria Dizzia (Katie), Julia Garner (Sarah), Louisa Krause (Zoe).

Production Photos


Production Notes

Sean Durkin started writing script of Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2007. When researching his script, Durkin read about what he calls “the big ones” of cults: Jonestown, the Manson family, the Unification Church of the United States and David Koresh. He realised he wanted to make something more experiential than political and downplayed the ideology and goals of the cult.

While researching, Durkin became fascinated by how someone gets into the farm or commune or group, and made a short film of the name Mary Last Seen about it starring Brady Corbet, who plays cult recruiter Watts in both the short and feature films. Mary Last Seen won the award for best short film at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight. While Mary Last Seen was about how someone gets into the cult, Martha Marcy May Marlene was about what happens to someone when they get out of it. Durkin made the short to show the world Martha was in, and also with the intent to send it out with the script for Martha Marcy May Marlene to potential investors. Mary Last Seen was selected for the Sundance Film Festival, and Durkin was given a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight.

Durkin and DP Jody Lee Lipes were inspired by the films Rosemary’s Baby3 WomenKluteInteriors, and Margot at the Wedding. The look of the film was particularly inspired by the last film.


  • Sean Durkin was looking for an unknown actress to play the role of Martha, which was the only role auditions were held for. Elizabeth Olsen auditioned twice for the role of Martha, and had to begin filming only two weeks after winning the part.
  • Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson invented together some background for the sisters’ relationship. So every scene when they talked about their past, although it’s vague on the script and for the viewer, Olsen and Paulson knew exactly what Martha and Lucy are talking about.
  • Shot over 20 days.
  • There are several references to the work of singer-songwriter, Jackson C. Frank. John Hawkes plays “Marcy’s song” in the film, while “Marlene” is played over the credits. It can be assumed that John Hawkes’ character, Patrick, fabricated the names Marcy May and Marlene from these songs.

Release & Reception

Martha Marcy May Marlene premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in January, with Durkin winning the festival’s U.S. Directing Award for Best Drama. It also screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2011. The film received a limited release in the United States on October 21, 2011.

In its opening weekend in limited release, Martha Marcy May Marlene grossed $137,651 in the United States. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released Martha Marcy May Marlene on DVD and Blu-ray on February 21, 2012.

The film received highly positive reviews, with Olsen’s performance as the traumatized Martha met with critical acclaim; the film holds a 89% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus capsule stating, “Led by a mesmerizing debut performance from Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a distinctive, haunting psychological drama.” On Metacritic the film has a 76 out of 100 “Metascore”. Christy Lemire of the Associated Press named Martha Marcy May Marlene the best film of 2011. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, describing Olsen as “a genuine discovery … She has a wide range of emotions to deal with here, and in her first major role, she seems instinctively to know how to do that.” Ebert’s only major complaint was that the movie’s chronological shifts were “a shade too clever. In a serious film, there is no payoff for trickery.”