Director Sean Durkin’s precisely constructed psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene is a movie of many m-words – memories, mirrors and madness.
The story, which won the directing prize at the Sundance film festival this year, is about the fractured identity of a young woman who escapes from a Manson-like cult. The title might also be a children’s chant, in a story as simple as the tale of Goldilocks escaping from the scary house to run all the way home.
It begins in the morning at a farm house, where a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) in jean cut-offs and a hoodie runs across a field to a nearby woods and makes her way to a roadside diner. She is followed by a young man from the farm who asks her to return. Instead, she makes an agitated phone call to her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she hasn’t seen in two years. The sister picks her up and takes her to the rented Connecticut summer house that she shares with her English architect husband (Hugh Dancy). The runaway sister, whose real name is Martha, doesn’t talk about where she came from. Lucy believes she has left an abusive boyfriend, and doesn’t pursue the matter any further.
Yet Martha’s behaviour is off-kilter – in her blunt observations about her sister’s life and the way she acts. She steals into Lucy and Ted’s bedroom in the night and curls up on the corner of their bed while they’re having sex. What’s wrong with Martha and when did it begin? Mostly, we’re left with hints that there are parallels between the seemingly domestic systems of her sister’s country home and the cult’s commune, which we experience in Martha’s progressively more disturbing dreams and flashbacks.
At the farm, the women in loose-gowned hippie dresses, wait silently by the stairs while the men finish dinner. Their leader is the wiry, watchful Patrick (John Hawkes, the meth dealer from Winter’s Bone), who, shortly after meeting Martha, rechristens her: “You look like a Marcy May,” he says and promises that everything in the commune is hers to share. That’s the set-up before the ritual drugging and rape that initiates all the women into the group. (“I’d give anything to have my first time again,” says one of the girls.). The last name in the movie’s roll call of a title, Marlene, is a name all the women use when talking on the telephone to the outside world.
Occasionally, Durkin is guilty of stacking the film with generic thriller elements – Ted and Lucy are too complacently bourgeois while the cult is at the extreme tabloid end of hippie craziness – but it’s an obvious bait-and-switch trick. Like another recent Sundance hit, Take Shelter, the film is really about an identity meltdown. In Ted and Lucy’s summer house, tensions rise: Martha’s carelessness and frank sexual presence disturbs and angers Ted. Lucy either tries to comfort or admonish her strange sister.
Olsen’s performance is a triumph of constraint: Most of the time, her blank, pretty face suggests she’s shut down, listening to her private soundtracks. Then comes a moment when she registers either fear or truculent resistance. After one of Lucy’s what-is-wrong-with-you scoldings, Martha suddenly bursts out defiantly: “I’m a teacher and a leader!”
At that point, we begin to recognize that Martha’s real ordeal may still be ahead of her. The memories grow darker and the panic becomes more extreme. As the film slides toward its alarming climax, we no longer know with certainty where the outside terrors end and the inner ones begin.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
- Written and directed by Sean Durkin
- Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy and John Hawkes
- Classification: 14A