Another Sundance movie sure to make an impact this year is Martha Marcy May Marlene, a taut thriller that tip toes into darkness with bone-chilling results. The film follows Martha, a broken young woman, during her first crucial weeks away from an abusive cult. Sean Durkin’s purposeful direction paints a near-perfect portrait of paranoia and fear while Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House) breaks away from her twin sisters’ joint shadow in a powerful performance as the damaged Martha. The film slips gracefully between past and present, forming a mosaic of questions on family, love, loyalty, and independence, and it is this masterful hold on time and space that creates the dream, or nightmare, that is Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The film opens inside the quiet farmhouse that houses the cult members. Martha creeps past sleeping bodies and out of her home with nothing but a backpack. As soon as she passes the front door threshold, she takes off into the woods, but her flight does not go unnoticed. From the moment Martha shutters the word “hi” into a payphone, asking her sister for help, it is obvious that she is anything but a free woman. Martha’s sister (Sarah Paulson, What Women Want, Deadwood) and wealthy husband (Hugh Dancy, Ella Enchanted, King Arthur) are unprepared to rehabilitate this mysteriously damaged girl. Her only explanation to her sister makes some sense: she had a boyfriend (Brady Corbet, Thirteen), he lied to her, they broke up. Her actions, however, expose her lack of understanding of social norms and interpersonal relationships. Her identity and sense of womanhood have been inexplicably altered.
To help illustrate where Marcy’s bizarre behavior comes from, Durkin takes us back through her journey into the cult and her assimilation into group mentality. Beautifully placed flashbacks and seamless transitions pull back and forth through time, and the dreamlike quality adds to the quiet but taut tone of the film. During flashbacks Martha meets Patrick (played by Oscar-nominated John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone), the group’s leader, and he lovingly re-names Martha Marlene as “Marcy May.” His generous demeanor, much like the demeanor of the group’s, serves one solitary purpose: to bring in new members. The members live off the land and don’t need materialistic possessions. They live as a family free from those kinds of wants. But, slowly, control and fear in the form of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and other inappropriate measures take the place of familial compassion.
The two storylines, Martha’s stay with her sister and husband, as well as her journey through the cult, meld together and emerge as one. Durkin refuses to wrap this story up nicely with a bow, and, by the end, we couldn’t imagine believing him if he did. Thus, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a slice of terrifying life, a short time span cut from a woman’s life in crisis. Detailed sound editing makes every movement—every creak, every snapping branch, every silent moment–pronounced, while the film editing seems barely there. Together, these elements make you want to hold your breath, as if you’ll forget for a second that you’re watching a thriller, even though the next electrifying moment is just around the corner. Martha Marcy May Marlene builds gently, but it still terrifies and, at least once, horrifies.
What makes a viewing of Martha Marcy May Marlene fresh is the film’s ability to present this cult dynamic and its after effects with shocking realism. Some of the disturbing brainwashing tactics are merely hinted at, while others are shown with deadened emotion. This is how it is. And, it’s not so bad, is it? Durkin keeps the psychic distance at arm’s length, so we feel slightly detached from this world. Still, Martha’s emotion bursts through the screen, and John Hawkes proves, once again, that he is a superb supporting actor. For its emotion, honesty, script, and pacing, I’ll go ahead and say it: if push came to shove, I would pick Martha Marcy May Marlene as the number 1 film I saw at Sundance this year.