In the opening sequence of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the foreground of an nondescript setting comes into focus. Somewhere in the wooded country is a small farm inherited by a collection of men and women. The men eat separately first, and then so do the women. They sleep five or six to a room, huddled on the floor boards, get woken up by banging pots, and begin their day’s work at the break of dawn. Before there’s time to establish this particular clan, a girl called Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen, Silent House) escapes from the compound into the Catskills forest, and then quickly places a phone call to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, “Cupid”) for help.
This brief, shadowy introduction incites mystery, a theme which eventually takes over the entire film. Lucy recognizes her sister’s voice over the pay phone, whom she addresses now as Martha, and discouraged by her troubled tone, drives up and takes Martha back to her quiet lake house where she and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, King Arthur) vacation. It is here where the movie seamlessly begins to uncover this fragile girl’s past life and uncovers the details of the obsessive cult that coaxed her. Lucy and Ted are unaware of this past, one which flashes back to where Martha has been living the last two years, and begin to slowly probe this clearly mentally unstable sibling.
The mysterious commune is headed by Patrick (John Hawkes, The Perfect Storm), the male elder, who’s scarishly persuasive behavior is accentuated by his grizzled, dirty look. His maniacal mannerisms appear to be personal moral achievements, and he influences the entire cult to abide by the established rituals of total love and cleansing. Martha’s abnormal behavior at her sister’s home parallels her past life within the unsound clan, and her erratic behavior quickly becomes a smoke signal for her former abused lifestyle.
Sean Durkin is in charge of capturing a myriad of outstanding performances in his first feature-length film. Martha is an expansion from a short film he created called Mary Last Seen, further exploring the practices and rituals of cults. His remarkable way of storytelling gets illuminated by economical uses of musical dissonance and past to present transitions. A smoother, more sensual editor than Spanish director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s harsh back and forth cuts, Durkin overlaps his dialogue in direct accordance with both Martha’s past and present realities. Her domestic outbreaks of fear and paranoia continuously correlate with her historical allusions to the previous two years. As she begins to question whether the things she remembers were dreams or misshaped memories, the narrative’s perspective becomes a similar examining point. Durkin’s blurred answers only help to perpetuate the secretive exploits of the cult and the exclusive practices that take place.
This intrigue is anchored by a strong group of actors led by up and comer Elizabeth Olsen. It’s not easy to live up to the merits of older siblings, especially if they have been branded like the Mary-Kate and Ashley twins have. But little sister’s performance proves her name isn’t the reason she’s in show business. Her innocence is wiped clean in this role, a penetrating struggle between the rugged, simplicity and ethically muddy communal wilderness and the domiciliary adaption into upperclass commonplace. Ms. Olsen possesses a docile, yet disarming gaze whose graceful features resemble a younger Vera Farmiga. Her outbreaks of misplaced aggression soon become overbearing for both Lucy and Ted, the stereotypical material couple, whose ideologies get scrutinized by Martha and then progressively made harsh by Ted’s retaliation. Durkin accentuates these misconstrued attempts at compassion- like the dissonance in Rachel Getting Married– but this begrudging hospitality unrealistically creates one-dimensionality that never seems justified.
More depth comes from the earthy cinematography that slops in the uneven ground of the cult’s countryside. Along with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, Durkin scopes the camera to the extremes of the screen. During passionate sessions of dialogue, discourse takes place with heavy closeups that get polarized to the far left and right, leaving vast amounts of space unfilled. This inventiveness stems from more of the unclear belief system of the cult, its obsolete customs strikingly rededicated by actor John Hawkes. Popular for his role in last year’s comparable oscar nominee Winter’s Bone, Hawkes runs the commune with decisive temerity. His chilling demeanor spins his female members into masochist-like states, fearful of displeasing their faithful master and reluctantly learning their given roles within society.
Instead of throwing this heavy subject matter into a speedy thriller, its pounding narrative and fluctuating moral dilemmas keep a fervent intensity. The hazing crescendo of atrocities gets more cryptic in both Patrick’s strangling presence and Lucy and Ted’s demanding maturity level. This dichotomy does however contain an emptiness that claws its way through these tired personas. The established flashbacks perpetuate an unsolvable circumstance- containing an abrupt ending- exeplified by the hardened, unsympathetic Ted, who shares a kind moment with his sister-in-law Martha before relishing back into his uncongenial status.
Martha’s psycholgical torment, clearly evident except in the eyes of her caretakers, holds a unsatisfying snapshot of the unexposed elite. Clearly battered, Martha takes advice instead from Patrick, who calls her a “teacher and a leader. He preaches that “death is the most beautiful part of life.” His logic follows that we all fear death and fear makes us aware; when we’re aware we’re present; when we’re present, we have nirvana and nirvana is love, the best part of life.”
The movie almost follows this concept- that the interminable suspense and irresolution create a complete sense of awareness within the film, visually capturing every inch of the screen in search of explanation, and this constant awareness makes us present- which for any filmmaker is a great thing.