Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by Sean Durkin
Sean Durkin’s Sundance-lauded feature is an unsuccessful, reductive attempt at fugue-like immersion in the life of an ex-cult member. Starring heavy-eyed Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, concussed refugee from some vaguely spiritual organic farm Mansonia, the film phases associatively between memories of the A-frame-house rural compound, and catalogue-perfect lakeside convalescence with her sister and yuppie husband. The look is there, in different senses: Olsen’s stare, accompanied by pauses in her speech, which echoes cult cant; and a faded-wash palette for that disconnected, fresh-from-coercion feel. Traumatized, she can be incommunicative, friendly, bratty, and wild-child inappropriate (the surest moments come when she viciously turns on her sister, with whom she also shares years of family turmoil, and when Durkin allows a post-fight fracture in consciousness).
The claustrophobia and timeless drift of the film convey the suffocating lack of rational, self-possessing thought in the cult, whose guitar-strumming shaggy alpha male (John Hawkes) practices droit du seigneur on lost-girl initiates. But Durkin pushes the uptight intolerance of the comfortably-off sister (Sarah Paulson) and husband (Hugh Dancy) to the point of brittle insistence, invalidating the suggested parallels in conformism. And the young woman’s fragmented memories come to feel less like a point of view and more like cover for a glancing, voyeuristic treatment and cheap titillating emotional suspense that together betray a fundamental incuriosity about actual cult experience (not least about the question of spiritual need, beyond sexual desire). Durkin delivers the ambient menace of the traumatic memories, but considers his work done too early.
Opens October 21