Martha Marcy May Marlene stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a damaged woman haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, who struggles to reassimilate with her family after fleeing a cult.
American cinema, or any national cinema come to that, will be hard-pressed to produce a worse title this year than Martha Marcy May Marlene — tongue-twisting, defiantly obtuse, difficult to remember, it’s a marketing monstrosity. Yet creatively it couldn’t be more apt. Like its title, Sean Durkin’s powerful debut needs to be worked at and doesn’t give up its pleasures easily, but if you stay with it, Martha Marcy May Marlene proves rewarding, thoughtful and terrifying, anchored by two great performances from John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen.
Durkin’s lo-fi film flits between two diametrically opposed worlds — Martha’s memories of the backwoods-y commune she has escaped from and the sleek, spartan lake house she has escaped to — the remembrances skilfully sparked by evocative sound-effects that come to mean something later: a skittering pine cone on a roof, leaves in wind. How Durkin drip-feeds Martha’s experiences in the vividly evinced commune, from sisterhood and sing-songs into increasingly dark and sinister places, is MMMM’s strongest suit, a teasing, patient form of exposition that creates a vivid, unflinching portrait of cult life — sexual initiations with Patrick are called ‘cleansings’ — but also reverberates around Martha’s strange behaviour in the present.
For all this to work, you have to believe the cult has a figure worth following and John Hawkes’ Patrick feels absolutely real. Whether memorably picking through a song on his guitar or dishing out cod philosophy (“Fear is the most amazing emotion of all”), Hawkes is a gently persuasive Messiah delivering warped ideas so smoothly you absolutely believe his ability to win over young hearts and minds.
Yet, as good as Hawkes is, this is Elizabeth Olsen’s movie. Martha has a huge emotional range to work through and Olsen nails them all. She is at once child-like and steely, but comes into her own in the present-day sections as Martha takes shelter with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson, also strong). Olsen builds up Martha’s odd behaviour (naked skinny-dipping, climbing into her sister’s bed during marital sex, a meltdown at a party) notch by notch, misjudging middle-class mores and wearing down her family’s patience. She provides a compelling centre to a psychological puzzle that, especially in its coda, offers no easy answers, just a complex study of a tortured soul.
Rough around the edges and too ambiguous for some tastes, this is grim but clever, insidiously creepy and affecting. And in Olsen and Durkin, it marks the arrival of two exciting talents to watch. It still should be called Mental Sex Cult.