Martha Marcy May Marlene
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 11th March 2012
In the opening scenes of this languid slow-boiler, young people are seen living peaceably in a tranquil, rural society. No voices are raised as they tend to the garden and play guitar; instead, hugs are shared and appreciations expressed in gentle, heartfelt tones. Marcy May smiles as she serves dinner to the assembled menfolk, content to wait her turn with the other young women until the men have finished.
Yet there is an unspoken tension building, evidenced by the knot that forms slowly in the pit of your stomach as, early one morning, Marcy May leaves the shared house and makes a run for it through the surrounding woods. Clearly all is not well.
Young writer/director Sean Durkin does many things well in this, his debut feature, not least the measured, thoughtful unfolding of a tale of subtle exploitation and understated manipulation. As the titular heroine is repatriated to her older sister’s luxurious home and regains her birth name, Martha (a poised and luminous Elizabeth Olsen, the clearly talented sister of those notorious twins) reveals as little to the perplexed and concerned Lucy (Sarah Paulson) as Durkin does to the audience.
Answers are eked out as the tale segues neatly into flashbacks of Martha’s time in the cult, and her present day struggle to make sense of both what happened to her, and what is real now. Such a story could easily be hysterical, chock-full of clichés, and buckle under the temptation to cast its characters as one-dimensional baddies. Instead, the brilliant John Hawkes (Oscar-nominated for Winter’s Bone) plays cult leader Patrick, his lithe frame sauntering that fine line between creepy and convincingly sincere. With charismatic menace he seduces Martha (thirty years his junior in real life), changing her name on a whim and thus exercising control from the outset. The supporting cast of unknown faces offer strong, realistic performances, framed by long-held shots and gradual close-ups.
Technically it’s a very fine film, captivating as we watch Martha’s reintegration into a family life that simultaneously disintegrates at her touch. While it may stretch credulity that anyone could lose perspective so fully after only a couple of years out of the real world, this is a minor quibble and on the whole the execution of the story is as masterful as it is intriguing.