Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene will hurt you deep in the pit of your stomach. It’s a slow burn of a film, immediately engrossing, but meticulous in the way it incrementally lays down alternative tracks of bleak and dread, ratcheting it up minute by minute, scene by scene, threatening to explode on you, but then lingering with the off-key music that will resonate long after the experience has ended.
The film opens with a series of quiet shots, peering around and then inside a farmhouse, where a group of men and young women are quietly eating around the table, where Patrick (John Hawkes) is sitting at the head of the table, stringy and menacing, the kind of guy you know immediately not to trust. It’s that kind of John Hawkes film, like his Winter’s Bone character but in reverse — the more he’s onscreen, the more he freezes your blood.
The morning after, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) runs out of the house, hides in the woods as her housemates give chase, and then finds a phone, where she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) on a pay phone, reluctantly asking her to retrieve her two states away. Martha has been missing from her family’s life for two years, and we slowly come to learn that she had joined a farmhouse cult, where lessons in self-sufficiency are exchanged for sex. She’s been brain washed by the cult leader, Patrick, who gives her gardening tips and she gives up her old identity. Even her name is changed from Martha to Marcy May.
Over the course of the rest of the film, scenes of her cult-life are intercut with the present, where Martha is staying with her sister and her new husband in a vacation house, contrasting the extremes of living. Martha no longer knows how to live in modern society, and traumatized by the events at the farmhouse, her mental breakdown unspools onto the life of her sister, who is both caring and controlling. At one point, Martha — who slept in a room full of women who took turns servicing the men — quietly crawls into her sister’s bed while Lucy and her husband are having sex, and Lucy unloads on her. “What the fuck is wrong with you!” It’s a phrase Lucy repeats throughout the film.
Martha Marcy May Marlene lurches inside of you and crawls around like a nasty beetle, and much of the success of the film can be attributed to the exceptional performance of Elizabeth Olson. She’s unreal in the way she depicts Martha, quietly inhabiting the dissociate personality disorder of her character, and pulling you down into her misery. It’s almost best you don’t know who her older sisters are going in, as that’s likely to taint your perception of her performance. She’s so far removed from the troll dolls who grew up on “Full House” that it’d never occur to you otherwise that she shares the same parents. Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a movie that’s going to get a lot of attention in movie theaters this year — at best, it’s 2011’s Winter’s Bone — but it will make a star of Olsen and leave you scratching your head for yet another year about how John Hawkes isn’t yet a familiar name to every filmgoing citizen on the planet.