Director Sean Durkin’s first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is an exploration of a young cult survivor’s attempt to process her traumatizing experience while in the hands of her helpless sister, tucked away in an upscale Connecticut summer home.
While trying to exist in the present, early twentysomething Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) experiences flashbacks to her time on an upstate New York compound from her unassuming introduction to cult-leader Patrick (John Hawkes) who dubs her “Marcy May” through his gradual manipulation, aided by other members, breaking her down mentally and physically. She’s a lost soul drifting between two time zones and very slowly drives her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) to their wit’s end.
Durkin is fascinated with the mechanics of cult behaviors and how Martha got brainwashed. He seamlessly cuts back and fourth between present and past, with Martha assimilating to the real world while recalling the conditioning she repeated daily for two years. The story blurs Martha’s reality and memory to jarring effect, the confusion of which Olsen shrewdly encapsulates in her performance.
The problem is that the script is too smart, too subtle for its own good. By giving the audience only scraps of Martha’s history before she allowed herself to be used by Patrick and his followers, it’s difficult to make the full leap into the story. It also raises suspicions as far as the believability of her circumstances. We know this happens, but it’s hard to buy into the amount Martha endures. The gaps in her life that led up to this time are deliberately missing from the script, yet fail to echo in other ancillary details.
As a thriller, the film also falls short. Durkin intimates an anxiety on Martha’s part that the world is closing in on her as she sorts through her darker moments. Indeed, the audience is kept on edge for a few moments during scenes towards the end, but there is a missing tension that would make Lucy and Ted’s obliviousness more compelling. This clan is as scary as Manson’s and, as an audience, we should be in fear. Still, despite the shortcomings, Olsen holds the screen and our attention the whole time, often deflecting pesky, distracting questions for which the rest of the film cannot provide answers.