Over a year later, I still run into people raving about Elizabeth Olsen‘s debut performance as an emotionally scarred cult runaway in Martha Marcy May Marlene. And it’s not even as if they have specific, thought-out criticism for the role—the conversation usually goes, “I finally saw the movie, and was just like, wow…” and “Remember that part with the kittens in the bag/when she walks in on her sister having sex/the ending?” Martha was the film that introduced us to Mary-Kate and Ashley‘s younger (and arguably more talented) sibling, and we’ll always treasure that experience of being first pleasantly surprised, and then blown away.
But every Hollywood career needs to maintain that momentum, and so far we haven’t seen a follow-up to match Elizabeth’s first breathtaking performance. Her IMDb page is all indie films; ironically, the second feature starring her, Silent House, she actually made before Martha. I was beyond excited to check out the movie, figuring it combined a powerful young actress with one of my favorite genres (horror). But I never got around to seeing it, mostly because I couldn’t find anyone to go with. As it turns out, maybe I didn’t miss much; most reviews hovered around a B grade. The Los Angeles Times sums up why the movie was underwhelming:
Actress Elizabeth Olsen, as the young woman stalked around the creepy dark house, does much of the same internalized panic as in her breakout role in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. She is always compellingly watchable, but with a much weaker film surrounding her performance, the impact of her work in Silent House is greatly diminished.
Now, four months later, I had a chance to recreate that situation: We received a screener copy of Red Lights, another thriller/horror indie starring Ms. Olsen. From Rodrigo Cortés, the man who put Ryan Reynolds in a coffin in Buried, Red Lights stars Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy as a pair of psychologists who investigate frauds and fake paranormal activity. Then in comes Robert De Niro as a world-renowned blind psychic, and suddenly these two have birds flying into windows, their homes broken into, and people they love in danger.
Despite a fantastic premise that promises commentary on celebrity magicians and our willingness to believe anything, Red Lights falters right in the middle. It quickly becomes clear that Cillian is the star, a physicist whose interactions with the other characters are colored by his passionate need to know: He admires Sigourney’s character’s unwavering stoicism in the face of phenomena, and he’s slightly obsessed with revealing De Niro to be a crook. Much of the film is downright creepifying; as Cillian gets increasingly battered with shattering glass, dead birds, and out-of-body astral sleep experiences, you’re just as on edge and suspicious as he is. From a storytelling standpoint, the ending is cool, but some critics thought it was too sloppy or easy of a stamp to put on the movie.
Note that Elizabeth’s name never comes up in the commentary above. That’s because this isn’t her movie. All of the promotional materials and trailers make it look like Elizabeth has a much bigger role, when really her significance drops from “inquisitive student” to “Cillian Murphy’s girlfriend” in a twenty-minute span. In a key scene where Cillian runs out of his apartment at 2 a.m. chasing what he thinks is De Niro, Elizabeth’s character gets weirdly scared about him leaving her behind. When he returns, more confused than before and with a bleeding foot, she whines, “I told you not to leave me alone! And you did!” I was all ready for this to reveal some neurosis or hint to mental instability, but it was just a throwaway line.
She’s good at what she does: She plays a student in Cillian and Sigourney’s Paranormal Fakes 101 class, obviously the star pupil who shares Cillian’s belief that “miracles” can actually happen. The scene where she and Cillian start to bond, as he shows her sleight-of-hand tricks over dinner, has a lot of potential to bring emotional weight to his character. But as one review points out, the choppy editing makes the scene awkward instead.
However, that scene introduces one of those lines you just know is going to be part of the twist ending: Cillian telling Elizabeth, “You can’t always trust your eyes. You do most of the magic by looking in the wrong place.” I was sure, then, that it would be revealed that she was secretly working with De Niro — a la Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige – and that she was getting the dirt on Cillian and Sigourney. The fact that I’m telling you this means that that wasn’t the big twist; really, Elizabeth doesn’t factor much into the ending at all.
It’s a shame. We already know this young woman has the chops. And as incredible as Martha was, it’s one very specific genre; it wouldn’t be making lighting strike twice for her to have another critical success. Maybe her best bet is to slide away from the thriller/horror genre for now. She’s got that in the bag with Martha.
In fact, that’s why I’m really excited for her upcoming drama Very Good Girls with Dakota Fanning. They play high school seniors who make a pact to lose their virginities the summer before college, but then they both fall for Peter Sarsgaard. Part of what made Elizabeth’s performance in Martha so compelling was her character’s odd sexuality, the casual way she would strip down to go swimming or climb into bed with her sister and brother-in-law while they were having sex. I think another movie about discovering your sexuality is the perfect route for Elizabeth. And we like her so much that really, we’ll go into any movie with high hopes.
Photo: Millennium Entertainment