Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes

4 out of 5 stars

Myles Herod
Entertainment Editor

This may be a purely personal bias, but I adore independent cinema. It’s often true that smaller pictures benefit from budgetary constraints, which allow for greater acting, confident writing and smart direction.

Evidently, Martha Marcy May Marlene is such an achievement – clever, creepy and extremely striking in its reflection of the duplicitous ways cults instill their beliefs.

Let it be known that this is a truly uncomfortable, fear-soaked experience. A chilling examination of the human psyche, viewed through the susceptible eyes of a damaged woman who has forgotten how to be human.

The picture opens with Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, an attractive, quiet, troubled 20-something, who — in a moment of quiet observation and rebellious strength — flees the confines of a fundamentalist cult.

Alone, and without resources, she reunites with her estranged sister Lucy (wonderfully played by Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy), who take her in to their remote summer cottage.

However, the idyllic scenery and support do little to calm Martha’s confused state, and soon she is sent spiraling between tormented memories of her former master Patrick (John Hawkes) and the upscale lifestyle of her new abode.

Viewing the film, it’s impossible not to be shaken by the sense of dread hanging over every scene. Truly, this is a stellar piece of American gothic, calling the arrival of two major talents. Writer/director Sean Durkin — making his feature film debut — is not interested in pointing the finger at any specific ideology, though.

Instead, he stops to examine what might drive such organizations, what might cause one to become a member and, more importantly, the psychological repercussions it causes.

He and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes have captured arresting visuals of mute beauty, where trees rustle with foreboding sway and murky waters blur the depths of perception.

As commendable as the direction is, though, all might have been lost if Durkin hadn’t found strength in a lead actress.

Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) brings a raw, wounded charisma to the role that’s difficult to watch at the best of times.

Gradually, flashbacks paint a picture of Martha’s enigmatic history. We see her live in what appears to be communal serenity under the watchful eye of Patrick, their hatchet-faced leader, who, in a casual, patriarchal welcome, renames Olsen’s character Marcy May.

Soon, however, charm leads to woodsy manipulation as Patrick teaches his adoptive tribe to channel old hurts into handgun skills, oversees their orgies and enlists them for petty theft.

Fashionably stark, one scene of house burglary, turned murder, immediately draws Manson Family comparisons with disturbing assurance – eventually moving Martha to reconsider her life.

Because Durkin is restrained in his depiction of both of Martha’s families, he can create a powerful juxtaposition as her experiences emerge, one from the other, fragmented yet telling.

At the lake, sisterly relations don’t fare much better. Absent of understanding, Lucy discovers that Martha has retreated within herself to a point of depression and hysterics.

Afflicted by alienation, and too numb to connect, Martha regrettably relapses with a phone call to her former clan, fearfully leaving the film open to whether or not they will come for her.

Strategically, the movie leaves conventional plot structure behind, trekking off into the backwoods, the mind and the paranoia of a bewildered girl. Then comes the ending. Watching the screen, I felt confident that I knew where it would go. I was wrong.

Funny, the more I think about the way Martha Marcy May Marlene ends, the more I realize that any other would have felt forced. Here Durkin devises a film interwoven from the past and present, and leads us into the darkness with one gripping shot.

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