Quiet yet creepy. Not exactly a drama, yet definitely not a horror film, Martha Marcy May Marlene paints a haunting picture of the effects of a Manson Family like cult on a young woman who fled the terrifying backwoods group and attempts a return to normalcy.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) reconnects with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), after running away from the rural New York cult she called home for some time. Lucy hasn’t seen her or heard from Martha in at least a couple years. She is filled with joy to bring her home, yet perplexed by where her little sister has been all this time without contact with family or friends. Martha says very little. She is a ball of nerves yet outwardly appearing subdued. Lucy’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), does his best to welcome Martha into his home. He too isn’t sure how to take Martha’s odd behavior. The first bizarre act being when Martha goes for a swim in the lake behind the house – sans clothes. Lucy yells at her sister to get out of the water and to put her clothes on. Marcy abides and looks honestly confused by the anger directed at her. Doesn’t everyone go skinny dipping in a public lake in the morning?
Since the story behind the film is a simple one, the director and writer, Sean Durkin, uses constant cuts between the current time line of Martha being with Lucy and Ted and Martha’s time with the cult. One moment is current and the next is in the past. Never jarring or confusing, the method works, as it slowly reveals Martha’s experience with the cult led by the best man for the job, John Hawkes. In a role and performance which makes one shiver, Hawkes demands attention during every scene he is in, no matter how much or little he speaks. His mere presence and sinister looks provide more than enough eeriness.
The tension of the film builds as we learn more about the cult and what fate likely awaits those who try to escape. What at first seems like hippies out in the woods living in a makeshift commune becomes a full blown cult, complete with violent rituals and the mandatory mind control. The reality of Martha’s current situation seems more dire as each flashback peels away one horrific layer after another to the core of her former life. Through it all, Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is near perfect. She behaves awkwardly with Lucy and Ted but never in a manner that feels melodramatic.
The ending is consistent with the rest of the film. Some may feel cheated, but no one can complain that the tone of the film drastically changes. It’s consistent to the very end; painting a disturbing picture of what it might be like to live through the experience of a violent cult.