‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’: Daring debut

October 19, 2011

How bad does your life have to get to surrender your being to the demands of a communal cult? How tentative does our grasp on our individual self need to be to give it up to the hive identity, led by one person’s desires?

Those thoughts will spring to mind as you watch Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the haunting film that serves as a coming-out party for a startling young talent, Elizabeth Olsen, sister of the Olsen twins.

She plays Martha, first seen slipping away from a farmhouse somewhere in upstate New York. You don’t really have a sense of what she’s leaving or where she’s going – but the way she starts running through the forest (and the way the other occupants of the farmhouse swarm into the woods in pursuit) seems ominous enough.

She winds up in a town, on the phone and, eventually, driven away by what turns out to be her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). And only then do you start to get your bearings in the story.

Martha, it turns out, has dropped off the grid for a couple of years after the death of her mother – without letting her sister or anyone else know where she’s been. Now she’s back at her sister’s Connecticut retreat, which she shares with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). But she’s seemingly lost her sense of socialization – or perhaps conventional civilization – because she’s acting strange.

Then Durkin drops us into the past – to Martha’s arrival at the farm, lured there by a friend, Zoe (Louisa Krause), who obviously has told her what a haven the place is. They apparently live communally, planting their own gardens and, occasionally, drawing money from the trust funds of the women in residence.

Martha is introduced to the leader, Patrick (a spooky John Hawkes), who rechristens her Marcy May – the better to shape her identity and control her behavior. She is inculcated into the ways of the tribe as it were: that women are subservient to and sexual objects for, the men; that women eat after the men and prepare the food for them; that Patrick initiates each of the women sexually, in what is almost a rape, aided by soporifics to make the subject docile.

As Martha tries to reclaim her identity back in the world, she still falls into memories – some gentle, some horrifying – of her days in Patrick’s domain. The activities initially seem benign, though there’s an air of surreptitiousness about the group’s existence, as though they’re not just hiding from the world but doing so because they know they’re doing something that needs to be hidden.

Yet they’re in Patrick’s thrall. And Patrick is a spell-binder: seductive, insinuating, flattering and enticing, making each woman feel as though she is his own special project and his favorite company. Yet he can be fierce and wrathful; no one wants to incur his displeasure.

Durkin’s particular achievement here is to capture for the audience Martha’s sense of disorientation when she surfaces – and then to show us how, gradually, life on Patrick’s farm sapped her will and made her lose her bearings. She knows she’s well rid of the cult – yet the world itself seems so strange that she has sudden, unexpected moments of longing for the familiarity of what she just escaped from.

Olsen gives us a strong sense of this woman whose compass is so seriously askew. She’s defensive with her sister, yet strangely docile as well, as though still in the haze that clouded her mind during her time on the farm. Paulsen is like oil to her water, never quite meshing with her sister. She knows something is wrong but can’t penetrate Martha’s resistance and doesn’t seem to have the tools – or the compassion – to do so. Hawkes brings a sharp-edged intensity to Patrick, finding his silky self-assurance that can lead his followers to anything, even murder. Charles Manson, anyone?

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is unsettling and accomplished. It shows you this story in jagged sections, then forces you to fit the puzzle together for yourself. And the picture it paints is one that’s bound to make you uneasy.

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