Creepy and serenely suspenseful, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a riveting study in what it’s like to escape from a physically, psychologically abusive cult, and how hard it is to return to normal life after being brainwashed. Despite a slow pace that intercuts the peaceful present with terrifying, often confusing flashbacks, and an ambiguous ending for the art-house crowd, this is a movie that haunts and resonates.
First time writer-director Sean Durkin has made a festival circuit splash with this odd, graceful film, and the centerpiece is a career-defining performance by Elizabeth Olsen (the younger of the Olsen twins—whatever that is) that is transcendent. She wanders aimlessly out of a crude country cabin in the Catskills one morning and staggers blankly into a village to find a pay phone. She dials. The woman who answers is her estranged sister Lucy, who hasn’t seen her for two years. Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) invite her to their house in Connecticut and spend the next three weeks trying in vain to unravel clues to where Martha has been, and Martha, who has assumed all of the other names in the title, spends her time trying to shake the rules and covenants of what was drilled into her head, revealing nothing of her mysterious past.
The film cuts back and forth between Martha’s unsettling experiences on the commune, and her new life on the outside where her disruptive presence and weird behavior (climbing into her sister and brother-in-law’s bed while they’re making love, leaping naked into the lake, insulting the bartender at their barbecue) wrecks their privacy and rattles their nerves. Ted thinks she’s insane. Martha grows more delusional and paranoid daily. Slowly, we learn why.
At first, life on the commune seemed unconventional, loving and spiritual. Then the charismatic cult leader and Charles Manson clone (John Hawkes, from Winter’s Bone) taught his followers to fire guns, break into houses and commit violent murders. The mantras he lived by were “Death is the most beautiful part of life” and “Fear is nirvana.” Escape became inevitable. Still resisting conventional behavior, but doubly vulnerable, she sinks deeper into the growing menace of the cult and its grip on her mind.
The film finally grows to a dark and shadowy finale that is open to many interpretations, but Durkin is always in control of his material, exploring the demented clash between twisted logic and ideology gone haywire without the lurid details. The pastoral environment around the cult that seems luminous is juxtaposed with the price Martha paid for her need to belong (hard labor in the fields, group sex, continual rape by the cult leader). Durkin admirably achieves a misty reality without preaching. He seems less interested in the sexual and religious alchemy of cult life than in the causes of one woman’s self-deluded descent into degenerative psychosis. Olsen, a revelation throughout, feeds every scene with poignancy. It’s an alarming but gratifying achievement.