Steeped in fear, paranoia, and dread, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tidy and compelling psychological thriller by writer-director Sean Durkin that deftly charts one woman’s shattered psyche. It’s one of the best such films since Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing, but much more accessible.
Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen) stars as Martha, a twentysomething young woman who falls into the orbit of a small cult and its charismatic and manipulative leader, Patrick (a chilling turn by the gifted John Hawkes). Tinted with shades of Charles Manson and David Koresh (but by no means a derivative character), Patrick obliterates his followers’ former identities and molds them to his will so completely that they act without question or hesitation. Their set-up resembles a communal farm on the surface; behind the scenes it’s an exploitive and predatory place.
As the story opens, Martha escapes the “family” and reunites with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), trading one domineering household for another. The two are self-absorbed, tightly wound, and thoroughly caught up in their own facile lives, completely incapable of reading between the lines and seeing that something is desperately wrong with Martha as she slides swiftly towards a breakdown.
In flashback, we’re made privy to Martha’s induction into Patrick’s group, her experiences within it, and the events that drove her from it. All the while, we’re left to determine what drove her to it in the first place, whether or not her fears of never being able to escape it are founded, and to what her experiences have left her psychologically scarred.
It is the kind of story that depends on its lead actress, and Olsen carries the film nicely. She displays an utterly believable wide-eyed and enigmatic vulnerability, and is so tuned-in to her role and gives such a nuanced and fearless performance that it’s difficult to believe this is her feature film debut. She carries herself like a seasoned pro. It’s Durkin’s first feature as well, and he too impresses, directing with a sure hand from a tightly written and carefully plotted script.
The movie also draws power from Jody Lee Lipes’ impeccable editing, with scenes of the past and present that seamlessly bleed together in a manner that often catches us off guard and clues us in to Martha’s delicate, teetering state of mind. By the time it reaches a disturbingly ambiguous conclusion, we’ve been subjected a very deep, very unsettling dive into a broken soul.