On the face of it, a relatively simple tale, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) turns out to be one of the most accomplished debuts of recent years. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a damaged young woman who is reunited with her sister after having disappeared for two years. Their relationship has, it seems, been troubled in the past, but Martha at last needs help and her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), is willing to take her in and help her in anyway possible – aided by her initially welcoming but increasingly impatient yuppie husband Max (Christopher Abbott).
It gradually becomes apparent that something is up, but Martha refuses to confide in her sister even as her dread builds – yet in flashback, we see Martha’s introduction and induction into a cult. Unlike Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011), the cult members are not heavily-armed ranters, bible bashers and homophobes, but softly- spoken, guitar playing new age types. Their retreat from a society that is about to fall apart (predicted by the economic crisis) seems reasonable and they are lead by the quietly charismatic Patrick, played by John Hawkes, an actor who is quickly becoming one of the most accomplished character actors of his generation. The more disturbing elements enter slowly and softly, as we are initiated along with Martha.
Never has the phrase ‘creeping horror’ been so apt. Like Haneke at his best (the picturesque house by the lake owes something to Haneke’s two Funny Games outings) or even early Polanski, each shot is framed with a deceptive reserve that comes to imply powerlessness and a gathering dread. Empty windows are there to be peered into, the forest is there for something to lurk within; nothing leaps out, but something might be there in the background, or might not be. Even time appears to be invasive as the soundtrack from the flashbacks bleed into the present, confusing not only the audience but also Martha who asks her sister at one point, “Is this happening now? Or is this the past?”
Many interesting questions are raised by Martha’s complicated and shivering subjectivity. Olsen’s performance is a genuine revelation and Durkin’s script and direction forces us to enter into an uncomfortable, possibly paranoid female psyche in a much more convincing way than Darren Aronofsky’s overblown Black Swan (2010). We are never fully sure of what we are seeing. Some plot information is simply never given and there is enough (of the right kind of) ambiguity to leave you thinking about Martha Marcy May Marlene for many days after having seen it – an instant classic.