Martha Marcy May Marlene centers on a cult, and by the movie’s end you feel as if you’ve been indoctrinated. Not into the cult, exactly, but into the fearful, paranoid mindset of its central character, a young woman who has fled an abusive commune in upstate New York and struggles to assimilate into the normal world.
Elizabeth Olsen plays the title character (the various names reflect not only her shifting identities, but also her fluctuating psychic state). It’s an astonishing performance, especially in terms of its physicality. In flashbacks to life on the commune, Martha seems confident and authoritative, a self-possessed women who is possibly in her 30s. After she escapes to the lake house of her older sister, shaken and unsure, she expresses a vulnerability that suggests she’s 12. And then there are the many times in the movie where she is unpredictably, dangerously in between.
If Olsen ably depicts Martha’s fractured psyche, it’s writer-director Sean Durkin who makes us feel as if we’re right there inside her swirling head. Subtle techniques abound. Often a tiny detail in the lake house will spark a memory from the commune, and before we know it the movie has transitioned from one place to the other. Another trick makes use of focus. Often we’re following Martha from behind as she walks into a room, with her back clearly in focus. The people and objects she’s walking toward remain blurred for a few beats longer than we’re used to in a movie. Like her, our sense of place and space is often groggy.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological drama, but Durkin includes a few horror elements here and there which only increase the dread. Every scene on the commune has a sickly tension, never more so than when John Hawkes, as the gaunt leader of this ragtag group, is in the frame. Zeroing in on his followers’ insecurities and then exploiting them for his own gain (in a variety of ways), Hawkes’ Patrick is an insidious presence. Pound for pound, Hawkes might be the scariest actor working today.
Martha Marcy May Marlene has one of those abrupt, inconclusive endings that some viewers find so infuriating, but it’s actually quite a fitting place for this particular story to stop. I won’t give away the details, except to say that the way it makes you feel confirms the movie’s powerful influence. By the final frame, you’ve adopted the alarmed, suspicious mental state of Martha Marcy May Marlene.