One day, well-off New England newlywed Lucy (Sarah Paulson) gets a call from her sister Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). She is surprised, no one has heard from her in years. Martha tells her she is in upstate New York and Lucy drives from her Connecticut lake home to pick her up, despite some long-harbored hostility leftover from their childhood.
So starts “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a captivating film that walks the line between psychological thriller and character study, exceling within both genres. Written and directed by newcomer Sean Durkin, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” follows Martha, as she reconnects not just with her sister but with the outside world.
The last part isn’t as easy as it sounds. For the last two years Martha has been living as a member of a cult-like commune. Recruited by the wickedly charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes), Martha joins the group and becomes a part of the polygamous “family.”
But, as we learn throughout the film in flashback, the hippy-dippy farming commune takes over Martha’s life and mind. First Patrick makes her change her name to Marcy May.
Her first night she is drugged and raped, forced to endure the usual initial ritual. But time passes and soon it is Martha who is recruiting other lost young woman, giving them the drugged herbal tea and participating in the tribe’s increasingly violent actions.
The story, strongly rooted in reality, is interesting and always keeps you guessing. Director Durkin takes a rather straightforward linear plotline and chops it up, freely cutting from the past to the present without any notice. At times it’s a bit jarring, but that’s exactly what Durkin is going for.
They are flashbacks, which function not just cinematically but psychotically, and we feel Martha’s disorientation and mental instability. What is real, what is PTSD and what exactly is happening right now?
Durkin has a great way of presenting the story and his cinematography is equally strong. It is poetic and beautiful without becoming overly artsy or distracting. All of that’s true, but the crux of the movie is really the performances, especially the luminous introduction of 22-year-old Elizabeth Olsen.
The younger sister of child-stars-turned-fashionistas Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, it is hard to believe this is her first feature film and that she comes from the same DNA that stared in a movie called “How The West Was Fun.” Olsen is a revelation here, possessing an almost-naked vulnerability, captivating screen presence and a homespun, expressive, beautiful face. I see big things in her future.
The rest of the small ensemble cast holds there own against Olsen.
Because some aspects of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” are so good, it draws attention to the parts that falter. The film is constantly drawing comparisons between Martha’s life in the cult to her life at her sister’s house. Some of these mirror images work, like how both story lines feature a male teaching Martha a new skill or someone being drugged against their will, but it goes too far. So much of this film flows beautifully and naturally, even a little bit of heavy-handed symbolism sticks out.
The ending, too, will madden some people, although saying why will spoil it for you. I’ll only say that, while I get why it turns some people off, it was the perfect way to end the film for me. Any other way, it could have veered dangerously close to cliché.
"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is not setting out to be a big budget thriller, and it is only playing in selct cities (currently it is showing at the Bow-Tie Criterion Cinema in New Haven), but it is more engaging and well-made than most suspence films.