The scariest movies don’t often involve crashing windows and angry demons, they come from the natural horrors heaped upon by the real world, by flesh and blood people with sinister motives and a long reach. You can be forgiven for not sorting out the title Martha Marcy May Marlene, but don’t let that deter you from a spell binding film featuring a star making turn by Elizabeth Olsen. In this haunting story by newcomer Sean Durkin, Olsen plays Martha, a young woman trying desperately to be normal after spending two years in what is best described as a whole other world.
Much like Martha, we’re thrust into the action immediately with no explanation, no clarity, as she’s seen running(escaping?) from a run down old house. Pursued by someone who may or may not be a friend, Martha is clearly lost and more than a little confused. In desperation, she calls her estranged older sister Lucy(Sarah Paulson), who brings her home to their lush vacation spot in Connecticut. The harsh tonal differences between her new home and from whence she came proves to be more than Martha’s fragile mind can endure.
As the haze begins to clear, we’re treated in small drips to Martha’s story, but never the complete one. We’re always just a little bit in the dark as to what truly went on. She somehow found her way to some sort of commune, which might as well be called a cult, led by the charismatic and creepy Patrick(John Hawkes). Patrick renames her Marcy May, his way of staking ownership of her, the way he has all the women under his charge. While not appearing to be a violent man, Patrick’s words worm into Martha’s mind like tendrils, almost like a form of brainwashing. He tells her she needs to be cleansed from the outside world, euphemism for the drugged rape he inflicts on all the new arrivals. The women are treated like second class citizens, not allowed to eat until the men are done. They clean, while the men play guitars and take target practice. Clearly someone who has felt the sting of abandonment more than once, Martha slips easily into their communal fold. So what was it that drove her away?
The answers aren’t easily forthcoming, and the real question becomes whether or not Martha can within a “normal” social framework. Lucy can barely make heads or tails out of her, but then the impression is that they weren’t nearly as close as she might remember. Martha appears to be a perpetual daze, as if she’s walking in some sort of dreamworld. Clearly, the past two years living in such cramped quarters have warped her view of personal space. She balks at the size of the home shared by Lucy and her husband Ted(Hugh Dancy), as if the excess is some sort of crime against nature. Her fascination of the married couple’s sex life would be uncomfortable, if it wasn’t trumped her innocent infiltration of their bedroom while in the midst of making love. When confronted, her response is that the bed was big and she was on the other side. Really? This girl needs serious help.
The question is how much? Thanks to Sean Durkin’s silky smooth direction it’s never really clear how much is real, and what may be a fragment of Martha’s tortured past. As she continues to unravel, the peril only increases for those around her. Is Martha truly safe from her past? Has Patrick and the rest of his followers found her? Or is Martha the true danger? Despite the somewhat relaxed pace, the tension stays at a fever pitch the whole way through, with Sean Durkin creating one of the most disturbing psychological horrors we’ve seen this year. Elisabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley, is a revelation, giving a performance that promises she’ll be a fixture for a very long time.
An ambiguous conclusion may rub a few folks the wrong way, but it matches the murky tone of the story beautifully. Besides, there may be no easy answers for the questions the film raises. Can someone who has lived the life Martha experienced ever truly live happily ever after?