Martha Marcy May Marlene, the shut-up-and-take-notice debut of writer-director Sean Durkin, opens with an escape: A young, obviously troubled blond woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees the odd Catskills farm community where she lives, dashes through the forest and outruns her pursuers. But some things you just can’t run away from so easily.
Martha eventually finds a pay phone and calls her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who hasn’t seen Martha in two years and offers to pick her up. Martha moves into her sister’s Connecticut lakeside summer home, where Lucy is vacationing with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Almost immediately upon arriving, Martha begins to display worrisome behavior – stripping naked in front of the couple to go for a swim, walking in on them while they’re having sex and crawling into their bed as if they were watching TV, asking her sister grandly inappropriate questions and making flat-out rude observations about the couple’s lifestyle.
And that’s just the start of it. What, exactly, is Martha’s problem? One of the ingenious things about Martha Marcy May Marlene is how precisely the film is constructed, constantly drawing you in closer while making you dread what’s coming. Bit by bit, and not always in chronological order, Durkin cuts away to the past to show us where Martha was and why she ran away. Refreshingly, Durkin doesn’t succumb to the temptation of providing us with every missing detail — there are big chunks of Martha’s past we are left to fill in for ourselves — but he gives us enough to make up our own minds. The more we learn about Martha’s life on the farm — a strange, seemingly idyllic cult populated exclusively by young adults and children and ruled by Patrick (a fantastic John Hawkes), who is prone to Mansonesque observations such as “Death is pure love” — the more we understand her profound emotional and psychological damage. And as the full extent of Patrick’s predatory evil is revealed, the more you fear Martha will never truly recover.
But neither Lucy nor Ted has any idea what Martha has been through, and she doesn’t tell them — she may have escaped Patrick’s clutches, but she’s still brainwashed and under his spell, and she doesn’t realize the turmoil she’s creating for her sister. Reminiscent of the work of Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Cache), Martha Marcy May Marlene rattles you with nothing but silence and implication (the score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is so spare and effective, you barely notice how it jangles your nerves). Durkin, who won the Best Director award at Sundance in January, has found the perfect actress in Olsen, the younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, to portray Martha’s deeply fragmented psyche. The more we come to understand this enigmatic, blank-faced woman, whose mind always seems to be elsewhere, the more we see the world through her paranoid, confused eyes.
Eventually, when Martha starts to suspect cult members may have tracked her down and are watching the house, we’re just as scared as she is by the mere sound of pine cones falling on the roof. Like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Martha Marcy May Marlene gradually places us inside the mind of a woman who just might be insane, and in its audacious, terrifying final scene, the movie traps us there in perpetuity, refusing to provide the viewer with a way out. This time, the horror follows you home — no exit, no escape.
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet.
Writer-director: Sean Durkin.
Producers: Antonio Campos, Josh Mond, Chris Maybach, Patrick Cunningham.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 101 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, brief violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 11 in Miami-Dade: Sunset, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace, Delray Beach.