Appearing fragile and terrified from her first scene until her last, Elizabeth Olsen brings an alarming quality to writer-director Sean Durkin’s quietly unsettling “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Durkin focuses on alienated young Martha during the immediate aftermath of her decision to escape a cult in the Catskill Mountains, probing her anxieties with keen cinematic skill. Using a patient, non-linear approach, the filmmaker constructs his character’s psychological disarray in a series of fragments from Martha’s brutal experience.
In the opening scenes, Martha flees the small cabin where she lives alongside dozens of women and a smaller group of stern-faced men. Heading to a nearby diner, she calls her sister (Sarah Paulson) in Connecticut, where she crashes while attempting to pull herself together. Needlessly to say, the task proves futile. An eerie piano score over the credits mirrors the movie’s constant sense of an uncertain reality, as it launches into a series of flashbacks. Martha—dubbed “Marcy May” by the cult’s oppressive leader, Patrick (John Hawkes)—struggles to distinguish between her new home and the restrictions imposed on her before.
For much of the story, Durkin leaves the details of the cult undefined, much as they initially are to its naive participant. While Martha wanders around her sister’s home in a daze, Durkin repeatedly cuts back to the sinister control previously imposed on her during her time in the mountains. Although Martha’s particular motives for joining this creepy, Manson-like bunch are never revealed, the dual nature of cult head Patrick shows how he manages to lure her with promises of an egalitarian existence before essentially turning her into one of his many sex slaves.
Hawkes tops the domineering masculinity he displayed in last year’s “Winter’s Bone” with a terrifying portrait of measured insanity. Verbally abusive and prone to sudden eruptions of lethal violence, Patrick leads his small army of brainwashed followers on inexplicable break-ins and lectures them about his twisted vision of the world. (“Death is pure love,” he claims, trying to justify a cold-blooded murder.)
Marked by patient long-takes and the uneasy quietude that accompanies Martha’s constant disconnect from her surrounding environment, “Martha” derives much of its power from a stark visual style that’s easily readable as the sum of its part. Photographed by prolific cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (“Tiny Furniture,” “NY Export: Opus Jazz”) and co-produced by Antonio Campos (director of the Cannes entry “Afterschool,” produced by Durkin and shot by Lipes), the movie contains a haunting depiction of the claustrophobia associated with the tendency for developing minds to question their surroundings.
Lipes’s penchant for fluid camera movement here evokes the best of the Dardenne brothers as he holds Martha’s face in extended close-ups and shadowy wide shots, suggesting dark forces lurking on the edge of each frame. Like “Afterschool,” Durkin’s first feature explores the dangerous extremes of youth vulnerability.
While under Patrick’s control, Martha is encouraged to embrace her reservations about the demented life imposed on her. “Fear is the most amazing emotion because it creates awareness,” he tells her, but instead it leaves her constantly disoriented. At her sister’s house, Martha slowly loses her grip on her newfound freedom, growing increasingly paranoid about the community she left behind.
During a house party, she becomes entirely delusional and eventually goes into panic mode, the chaotic soundtrack mirroring her mental detachment. Later, the story goes into full-on horror mode, as she lashes out at her sister’s well-meaning husband, possessed by the demons of her past. As Patrick’s indoctrination continues to cloud Martha’s vision, Durkin makes it clear that a part of her identity remains in the mountains.
“We’re never really dead or alive,” Patrick tells her. “We just exist.” That’s also an apt summation of the movie, which floats through Martha’s distorted subjectivity until the final cut to black. Durkin’s underlying focus is the frailty of the human mind when forced to question the validity of its surroundings. “I don’t blame you for not trusting people,” Patrick tells her at one point, but mainly she’s unable to trust herself.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Most media attention for the movie will revolve around newcomer Olsen’s breakthrough performance, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. The cerebral style and grim subject matter will probably alienate wider audiences, although it could garner further acclaim on the European festival circuit, which may respond better to its sensibilities.
criticWIRE grade: A-