Sean Durkin's exceptionally well-made but emotionally distant debut offers a subjective view of contemporary culthood—the initial seduction, the blind-eyed devotion, the gradual disillusionment, the post-membership paranoia, the lingering appeal. Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister to Mary-Kate and Ashley, stars as the title character—that's her Christian name, her cult name, and her cult alias—and hers is a breakthrough as striking as Durkin's: as the title suggests, she's a multifaceted character, and Olsen not only embodies those divergent personalities—amiable idealist, nerve-wracked coper—but does so simultaneously, hopping organically between them within single scenes.
The movie opens with Martha escaping from a two-year stint at a kind of polygamist upstate New York ranch—led by a charming, sweet-eyed, and addict-thin John Hawkes—to hole up with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) in nearby Connecticut, where she and her new husband (Hugh Dancy) rent a lavish lakeside weekend home. (One critic at the NYFF called their bourgeois lifestyle its own kind of cult—Paulson scolds her sister for swimming naked, putting her bare feet on the counter, for shaking a fresh Polaroid.) The movie cuts between her past and the present—the timelines often switch on a clever match cut—though Durkin said he sees the flashbacks more as flashsideways, as though MMMM, through memories, is experiencing her past for the first time after her benumbed and disoriented stretch across state lines. (The first thing the cult does is dismantle your old identity—Hawkes issues new names, controls the feeding schedule, and sexually abuses the women.)
While Durkin sometimes follows his heroine around with a hand held camera to emphasize her anxiety, the shots in Connecticut are generally steady, reflecting its relative stability; at the farm, the camera often slowly tracks forward, playing on horror movie convention to suggest a vague menace. When Durkin starts using such tracking shots in the Connecticut scenes, you know MMMM is in trouble, no musical cues necessary. (The cinematography is by the great Jody Lee Lipes.) While her relationships with her sister and brother-in-law deteriorate, her line between dream and memory blurs; she confuses past trauma with present circumstance, reliving experiences with sexual abuse, both suffered and committed, and finally violence, as the group grew Manson-esque; MMMM reacts by kicking her brother-in-law down a flight of stairs, regarding strangers hysterically, and berating her sister. Right up to its creepy, ambiguous ending, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a tour-de-force of subjective experience, technically masterly. But the surface-level brilliance, and the story's narrow focus, also serve to keep the viewer at a remove—the movie's pretty chilling, in more ways than one.