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As taut and economical as its title is unwieldy, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene—a first feature that won the Best Director award last January at Sundance—is a deft, old-school psychological thriller (or perhaps horror film) that relies mainly on the power of suggestion and memories of hippie cult crazies.
Carefully constructed, Martha Marcy divides its eponymous protagonist (Elizabeth Olsen) into two personae, each associated with one of the movie’s two main locations: a posh new summer cottage on a Connecticut lake and an isolated communal farm in the Catskills where the action opens. It’s an idyllic, disquieting Sundance-style pastoral as docile young farm women put out dinner for their handful of male comrades to eat under the eye of their crafty, hyper-alert leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Cut to a mountain of dishes in the sink and commune members sleeping on pallets six to a room.
This deliberate table setting (figurative as well as literal) is dramatically upended when Martha, a baby-faced beauty whom Patrick has renamed Marcy May, wakes up early and takes off into the woods. Eluding Patrick’s second in command and de facto pimp (Brady Corbet), she makes a fearful call to her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), establishing contact for the first time in several years, and is soon ensconced in Connecticut comfort. Lucy is aggressively bourgie; husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) is impatient and snarky. Traumatized Martha would have trouble readjusting even if she weren’t so fabulously inappropriate—wondering aloud why they need such a big house, swimming nude, asking if it’s true that “married people don’t fuck.”
Lucy blows hot and cold toward her sister—just like Patrick, whom we see in flashback, running his head trips, initiating the drugged, newly renamed Marcy May into his preferred form of sex, writing a special song just for her and performing it for his appreciative followers. (The commune’s men all seem to be untalented musicians.) Angular, sinewy Hawkes is a calmer, scarier version of the hillbilly meth monster with heart he played in Winter’s Bone while, as directed by Durkin, Olsen (younger sister of the Olsen twins) gives a superb performance, battling confusion, radiating anxiety, and desperately asserting her beleaguered identity. Martha baffles Lucy with the declaration that she is “a teacher and a leader” and enrages Ted with her hippie ideology. (Calling her behavior “fucking insane,” he doesn’t know the half of it.)
Typically match-cutting images of deep, still water from the two different locales, Martha Marcy is full of foreboding. The spare, angsty score by Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi is as ominous as distant thunder. Past and present begin to merge. Martha wonders whether her memories are really dreams. She wanders through a party of her sister’s friends as if in a trance and then begins to freak—perhaps because she participated in what the Mansonoids used to call a “creepy-crawly” home invasion.
Martha Marcy is purposefully abstract, sharing a certain coolness with the similarly performance-driven youth shocker Afterschool, produced by the same group of youthful NYU grads, along with a similarly studied, Bergmanesque interest in psychological states. Martha’s yearning to belong is existential. It’s never explained how she landed at the commune; not until late in the movie is it clear why she left. Nor is it obvious how Patrick maintains control. (Unlike many counterculture mind-messers, he doesn’t appear to have the benefit of LSD.) The withheld information only heightens the spookiness.
When Patrick declares that “death is the most beautiful part of life” or asserts that “fear creates complete awareness” (and awareness is a form of love), he’s paraphrasing America’s favorite boogeyman, Charles Manson. Ultimately, Patrick’s evil is less haunting than Martha’s madness. Olsen’s wide-spaced eyes and slightly flattened features give the impression of a face pressed against a window. She’s locked out and desperate, a lost soul looking through a glass darkly.