That you might struggle to remember the exact title of Sean Durkin's debut film is inevitable, perhaps intentional. Martha Marcy May Marlene is such a thoroughly fractured picture of a woman's resurfacing from life in a cult that the various names she's called at different points feel incidental and fungible, a string of sounds that loosely tie together past and present, reality and perception.
Martha (the character's birth name) is played by the enigmatic Elizabeth Olsen, who seems at once to be sitting quietly on a fount of trauma-induced wisdom and also scraped raw of any sensation. The film picks up as she is packing her things and stumbling through the Catskills to escape from the cult commune where she has been living, we learn, for the past two years. A labored and terrified pay phone call to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) lands Martha in a posh vacation cabin with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). This serves as the backdrop for Martha's struggle to piece together the fragments of her identity.
The film flits seamlessly back and forth between Martha's life as "Marcy May," equal parts daughter and bride under the thumb of a cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), and her present-day reintegration into life outside the commune. Here, Durkin masterfully blurs the line between Martha's former life and the one that awaits her, making Martha's missteps in assimilation seem more believable than they might be otherwise: An orgiastic scene at the commune shores up the scene in which Martha innocently climbs into bed next to an appalled Lucy and Ted while they are mid-coitus.
Durkin parcels out details in drips, gradually revealing the monstrous damage that cult leader Patrick has done. In a perfect cocktail of emotional manipulation, he both sexually abuses the women and buoys them to be their best. "You're a teacher and a leader," he tells Martha, effectively achieving the sinister balance of patriarch and lover, made in the likeness of Charles Manson.
If the first half of Martha Marcy May Marlene lulls the viewer into an eerie sense of calm after the storm, the latter half realizes its potential as a psychological thriller, dredging up Martha's paranoia, and introducing the possibility that she will never escape the commune. Are pine cones falling on the roof or being thrown from below by her former cult comrades? Is she really being hunted by Patrick's followers or are these the fabrications of a mind traumatized beyond repair? Martha asks Lucy, "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or something you dreamed?" In this unknown territory, the threat of the commune looms — somewhere between dreams and reality, between the memories that haunt her and the terror of a real and present threat. The viewer is similarly unsure, as the image of Martha's face, her deadened nerves shocked back to life by fear, fades into black.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Opening Friday, November 11th