In the opening scenes of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," we watch idyllic scenes of life on a small commune in the Catskills, and it is slowly revealed that these are members of a cult. Still, nothing stands out as particularly unsettling until one of the young women, called Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen), walks off into the woods and makes a narrow escape. At a nearby town, she calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), her only family. We learn Marcy May's real name is Martha, and she hasn't had contact with Lucy in two years, since they had some kind of falling out.
The damage that the cult and its charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), have done to to Martha isn't immediately apparent. And though Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are wealthy and well-meaning, they are not emotionally prepared to help Martha through the transition. After their reunion, Lucy takes Martha home to the picturesque vacation home she and Ted are occupying in Connecticut, where Martha's mind slowly begins to unwind. She clashes with Lucy and becomes increasingly plagued by bad memories and paranoia. Flashbacks reveal how she became involved with Patrick and the cult, as she struggles to escape their continued influence in the present.
It's been a good year for cults on film, or a bad one depending on how you look at it. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" isn't really a film about a cult though. It's about the type of person that makes it possible for cults to exist, who are the most susceptible to their pull, and who are unable to break away unscathed. And I expect that studying them is just as helpful as studying the David Koreshes of the world if you want to get to the heart of the matter. Martha is such a character, easily one of the most complex and interesting portrayals of a cult member to ever appear onscreen.
And "Martha Marcy" wouldn't work if the performance of Elizabeth Olsen as Martha weren't as strong as it is. I think she's been a little oversold as the newest Hollywood debutante, but she's certainly got the chops to carry the film. Martha puts on a tough, stubborn exterior, but her mental state is far more fragile. While Olsen may not be as nuanced as some of her peers, she's very good at subtly conveying a gamut of emotions while hardly changing her expression. Because Martha is so evasive, and has been so deeply repressed, much of the conflict involving the character is going on internally. Olsen is sometimes too impenetrable, but she always retains an aura of great vulnerability and loss.
And it's that loss that makes the film so distinctive. Writer/director Sean Durkin avoids sensationalizing the cult and its members, mostly by keeping the film very tightly focused on Martha's personal experiences. While Martha's departure from the cult removes her from unwanted influences, the film shows that it also removes the major stabilizing, normalizing force in her life, and this has profound consequences that she cannot foresee. There are no easy answers provided, and no labels affixed to Martha's condition. Rather, themes are handled deftly, with sensitivity and insight.
Martha's feelings of persecution and paranoia, on the other hand, I have more trouble with. The filmmakers take all that good character drama, and push it almost to the brink of a genre thriller, but not quite. Martha's mental deterioration, coupled with the ambiguity of whether we're examining her memories, or if she's seeing things that aren't really there in the present, drives the film's second half. These elements are well executed and enjoyable, but I don't think "Martha Marcy" needed so much heavy-handed psychological metaphor. The ending especially, has some horror overtones that go a little too far.
There is an awful lot to like about the film though. Other members of the cast that should be singled out for attention include John Hawkes as Patrick, who is a magnetic charmer one minute and terrifying monster the next. I haven't liked Sarah Paulson in many of her other roles, but she's perfectly cast as Lucy, and she quickly made me sympathetic to a pretty unlikeable character. Dirkin's direction is moody and sharp, and he has a good eye for composing mundane, and yet terribly unsettling images. He already understands the value of not showing too much. And the music is just enough to add to the picture without becoming obtrusive. Hawkes' performance of "Marcy's Song" is a highlight.
So a few minor issues aside, "Martha Marcy" is definitely worth a watch. And keep an eye out for Elizabeth Olsen in the future, though from the buzz around her, I doubt you'll need to look very hard.