Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mostly gripping, yet slightly smoke-and-mirrors study of one young woman’s psychological distress following a traumatic experience, marked by an excellent central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley).
The film begins with our heroine Martha escaping a commune in the Catskills to find refuge in the house inhabited by her elder sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by the very English Hugh Dancy). Gradually, it is revealed that the troubled Martha has extricated herself from a sinister cult presided over by the shamanic Patrick (John Hawkes) and populated by a host of servile young women and none-too-bright young bucks.
The film cross-cuts back and forth from past to present, augmented by some terrific, slinky transitions from editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier that blur the line between real and imagined, while an abstract threat constantly lingers in the background thanks to the atmospheric use of sound and a discordant score.
Olsen is superb, alternately fierce, cocksure, naive and vulnerable, and it will be no surprise if lazy journalists (not me, you understand) begin to refer to her as this year’s Jennifer Lawrence who, of course, gave good woman-in-backwoods-peril opposite Hawkes in the Oscar-nominated indie Winter’s Bone. Hawkes as Patrick cuts a wiry, even disturbingly thin, figure and has a charismatic verve, though his rent-a-cult aphorisms begin to pall after a while, and the commune and its inner workings are particularly – and disappointingly – thinly drawn.
Within this tense thriller lie some interesting themes, for example the binary opposition of Martha’s past and present living conditions. A heavily influenced and naive Martha seems to conflate the rural simplicity and routine of the commune with freedom despite the various abuses she has suffered, and rebels against the monotonous materialism personified by the bland domesticity of Sarah and Ted’s married life. Dancy (whose stiff, declamatory Englishness is used for something approaching comic effect) delivers a pompous dinner table defence of capitalism which goes some way to underlining her mistrust of such conformist living.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, is far from perfect. Even with the knowledge that much of what happens is filtered through the unreliable psychological state of our heroine, there are one or two staggering plot inconsistencies that undermine the drama to damaging effect. It would be wrong to give too much away, but you will certainly be wondering why the cult let Martha get away so easily when you find out what they’ve been up to, and perhaps even more frustrating is Lucy’s howlingly irritating disinterest in finding out about the details of her younger sister’s ordeal – it takes over an hour for her to conclude that the clearly distressed Martha “might need help”, and she never seriously enquires about what she has been through.
Despite its flaws, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth seeing, and marks a promising debut for writer-director Sean Durkin, provided he goes down the route of adding a bit more substance to his films.