- Rated R
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All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
ovies about cults were all the rage at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (including the well-received “Sound of My Voice” and Kevin Smith’s “Red State”), and perhaps the biggest standout of them all was Sean Durkin’s directorial debut, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” for more reasons than one. Apart from the fact that it has a pretty catchy title, the film garnered serious attention for Durkin (who went on to win the festival’s directing award) and its star, Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of media moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley. But while Olsen’s family tree makes for some interesting discussion, the up-and-coming actress gave audiences something really worth talking about with her remarkably vulnerable performance as a damaged woman trying to reintegrate herself back into society after escaping a creepy cult.
The movie begins with Martha (Olsen) making her covert getaway from the cultish commune where she’s been living for the past two years. After contacting her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for help, she's brought back to the Connecticut lake house where Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) have been staying for the summer. But as they try to get Martha to open up about what really happened, flashbacks slowly reveal her time spent as a member of the cult led by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes), whose first order of business with every new recruit is to assign them a different name in an attempt to "cleanse" them. (Although what he’s really doing is stripping the girls of their identity to make the brainwashing process that much easier.) And so Martha becomes Marcy May, initially adapting to her new life as a member of Patrick's makeshift family until she discovers the darker side of his teachings. Haunted by her traumatic experience, Martha gradually becomes more paranoid that the cult is going to track her down and force her to come back with them.
Though the script isn’t as strong as the performances that carry it, Durkin does an excellent job of creating an unnerving feeling of dread out of the smallest moments. As more of Martha’s story is revealed through the film’s cleverly edited transitions between past and present (to the point where it gets to be intentionally disorienting), the audience gradually becomes almost as paranoid as Martha herself. Elizabeth Olsen handles the emotionally demanding role with the grace of a seasoned pro, and she’s the main reason why the movie is so captivating, with her star-making turn guaranteed to be remembered come awards time. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy are also good as Martha’s unbelievably patient support system, while John Hawkes taps into the same menacing creepiness of his Oscar-nominated role in last year's “Winter’s Bone."
My only problem with the film is that because of the ominous nature of the story that he's telling, Durkin seems unwilling to divulge very many details about the cult and its members. We’re given plenty of examples of why Martha would want to get the hell out of there (the most unsettling of which involves a ritual rape trumpeted as each girl’s “special night” with Patrick), but very few reasons as to what attracted her to the cult in the first place. The movie also employs a lot of parallels between Martha’s time at the commune and the days following her escape, which brings up the distinct possibility that the flashbacks aren’t memories at all, but rather just a fabrication of her mind. Durkin leaves that to the audience to decide. And while that might annoy some people who like things spelled out for them, it's that feeling of uncertainty that makes “Martha Marcy May Marlene” such a disturbing yet strangely mesmerizing psychological thriller.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Though Fox’s Blu-ray release of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” appears to offer a pretty healthy collection of bonus material at first sight, it's not nearly as good as you'd expect. Despite boasting five different featurettes, most of them are barely three minutes long and heavily padded with clips. The sole highlight of the disc is director Sean Durkin’s short film, “Mary Last Seen,” which serves as a companion piece of sorts to the feature.