Movie review by Greg Carlson
Eerie and unsettling, Sean Durkin’s feature film debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene” addresses the psychological aftermath of one young woman’s experience with a violent and sexually and emotionally abusive Charles Manson-like cult/commune. A carefully studied landscape of disorientation and mental transience, the movie sidesteps the sub-genre’s tendency to construct a central relationship between “brainwashed” hostage and professional “deprogrammer,” choosing instead to explore the protagonist’s fragile, tenuous grip on mundane, day-to-day activities and her shaky reintegration into the lives of her baffled, blindly naïve family.
Elizabeth Olsen inhabits the various personae suggested by the film’s alliterative, titular monikers with hypnotic appeal, confidently resisting the temptation to base Martha’s personality on a foundation of unwitting victimhood and sacrificial tokenism. Instead, Olsen and director Durkin lace the character with an almost abrasive flintiness, and the result is a complex portrait in several ways reminiscent of Jane Campion and Kate Winslet’s Ruth Barron in “Holy Smoke.” As Martha alienates her frustrated sister and incredulous brother-in-law with irrational behavior, including crawling into their bed while they are having sex, Durkin refuses to judge her. Instead, the director moves in close to Martha’s mounting paranoia that the cultists are only an eyelash away from showing up to reclaim her.
Cutting smoothly between Martha’s time in the twisted congregation of Catskills-dwelling nonconformists and her difficult transition back to the “normalcy” offered by her sister’s comfortable lakeside vacation rental, Durkin provides only some of the tantalizing details that motivated Martha to leave her unorthodox life after roughly two years “off the grid.” Through the flashbacks we meet Patrick (John Hawkes), the quietly intense clan patriarch whose silver tongue rationalizes drug-assisted rapes of the steady procession of young women who find their way to his working farm. Patrick’s manipulation of followers, men and women alike, is glimpsed in several chilling scenes, and Durkin’s tight rationing fosters curiosity about the kinds of things Patrick does that the audience is not privileged to witness.
As if the sexual assaults were not enough, Patrick also orchestrates and/or presides over break-ins and home invasions, including one horrifying incident that presumably contributes to Martha’s decision to detach from the group. Beautifully photographed by Jody Lee Lipes, who also shot “Martha Marcy May Marlene” co-producer Antonio Campos’ terrific “Afterschool,” the movie’s frames alternate between the open and the claustrophobic, compositionally voicing Martha’s estrangement and alienation. Additionally, natural outdoor settings, including a recurrent water motif, glisten with sumptuous tactility. The contrast between Patrick’s rustic environs and the sleek minimalism of the house inhabited by Martha’s sister also contributes to the division between Martha’s past and present.
For many viewers and several critics, Durkin withholds too much information. While the deliberately oblique course of the drama imposes Martha’s confusion on the audience, the filmmaker’s unrelenting obfuscation and uncertainty is worn like a badge of honor up to and including the enigmatic final scene. Staying true to Martha’s inability to take comfort in any one identity, Durkin elides key dimensions of traditional closure, a bold tactic that will delight some moviegoers and infuriate others. The ending, like a handful of preceding scenes, drags “Martha Marcy May Marlene” right to the edge of horror, but perhaps the most haunting thing about the film is that its talented filmmaker is not afraid to identify with Martha’s attraction to life in a cult.