[This is a re-print of my review from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival]
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a powder keg of tension, paranoia, and regret that will have you captivated with incredible direction and amazing performances. Centering on a young woman who escapes from a cult only to discover that she can’t re-assimilate, the storytelling is always restrained, intelligent, and compelling. In his debut feature film, director Sean Durkin brilliantly ties together haunting cinematography, intense sound design, and smart editing. Elizabeth Olsen gives a breakthrough performance as the haunted Martha, and costar John Hawkes continues to amaze. Never showy but always compelling, Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best films I’ve seen at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Martha (Olsen) has spent two years as a member of a cult. Rechristened “Marcy May” by the cult’s enigmatic leader Patrick (Hawkes), the film begins with her fleeing from the cult and calling her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help. Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) take Martha in but they soon start to discover how damaged Martha has become. However, Martha refuses to tell them what happened to her so Lucy and Ted only become more frustrated and scared with Martha’s erratic behavior. The movie proceeds to alternate between Martha’s life at Lucy and Ted’s lake house and her life as Marcy May within the cult.
Martha is remarkable in how it avoids sensationalism at every turn. The movie is a slow burn that slowly reveals how the cult took hold of Martha and how it controls her even after she escapes the compound. Durkin soaks the movie in long, contemplative shots of Martha as we see how broken she is. The film also has no score beyond an occasional intense single note. And as a final master stroke, Durkin uses visual rhyming to transition between Martha’s scenes at the lake house and her life as a cult member. A cult story lends itself to dramatic spectacle, but instead Durkin turns his focus onto the central theme of how captive this young woman is and how physical escape may not be enough.
The way Durkin sets the cult dynamic is fascinating. Watching these brainwashed women working as slaves is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Every little nudge, from the Patrick stripping away a woman’s old name and replacing it with a new one to the women “handling” the newest member and telling her, “You’ll find your role.” And those are the least unsettling things that happen. Durkin understands that cults are inherently creepy and therefore doesn’t need to sensationalize it with elaborate rituals or clichéd cult imagery (e.g. matching clothes). He simply relies on the strength of his visuals, sound design, editing, and tremendous actors.
This movie would not work without a talented actress bringing Martha to life and Elizabeth Olsen gives a performance that people will be talking about all year. She walks around in a melancholy daze as if the world outside the cult might as well be another planet. It’s an honest, gut-wrenching performance that conjures feelings of pity, disgust, and contemplation. Also doing phenomenal work is John Hawkes. He absolutely nails the creepiness of the character and provides an insight into how such a figure operates. If someone had documented how Charles Manson indoctrinated his followers, it would probably look like what Hawkes accomplishes. Like Olsen, he keeps his performance in line with the tone of the film and always sets the audience ill at ease with the utmost subtlety.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is not a movie that can be viewed passively. It doesn’t give you musical cues or any kind of flash to tell you how to feel. It’s unsentimental but nails the emotions and complexity of its subject. It will pain you, horrify you, captivate you, and stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.