Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

This shivery account of the fallout from a creepy cult on a young woman deftly combines the horror-thriller genre with naturalistic drama and marks the arrival of a gifted young director.

The title is unwieldy, but once you're into this portrait of a fractured personality, it makes spooky sense. Winner of the Best Director Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene kicks off as Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, in a breakout turn) flees a coercive, familial cult in upstate New York. Narrowly escaping her pursuers, she takes refuge in the pristine Connecticut home of her sister (Sarah Paulson), from whom she's been estranged, and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy, superb).

But physical safety is no bulwark against Martha's memories of sinister experiences, which have left her shattered and disoriented when faced with conventional routines. More comatose than awake, she walks in on her hosts having sex and generally behaves like a lunatic, yet can't—or won't—articulate the troubling details of her past communal life.

Durkin gradually unfolds Martha's story on dual tracks, shifting from scenes in her sister's light-struck home to past events in the commune which grow increasingly dark and confirm our worst suspicions. The alternation is suspenseful and seamless, as in one striking montage of Martha diving into a Connecticut lake, to resurface among cult members in a swimming hole. Though the details are kept murky, it becomes apparent that she was subjected to some sort of druggy sexual “initiation” by Patrick (a frightening John Hawkes of Winter's Bone), the cult's patriarch, who remained her partner before moving on to the next recruit. There's worse, including the group's possible involvement in murder and infanticide.
Durkin tellingly contrasts the cult's communal ethos—“You need to share yourself, don't be selfish,” says Patrick—with the upscale, stressed-out ménage of Martha's sister.

Suggested here is that the materialism of mainstream society is part of what impels a Martha to seek an alternative family. But if Durkin means to present Ted as one more patriarchal control freak lording it over a woman—the clean-cut version of Patrick—that's a stretch.

Throughout, the director weaves a mood of menace, all the creepier for its vagueness, marrying the genre of horror thriller to naturalistic drama. By the ambiguous final scene, the viewer feels almost as paranoid and disoriented as Martha. Durkin brilliantly taps into our current anxious state, where even the most protected feel vulnerable to unknown predators.