Martha Marcy May Marlene

USA | 2011 | Directed by Sean Durkin

Logline: A young woman is reunited with her older sister and husband after escaping the insidious clutches of a cult, but plagued by paranoia and abnormal social conditioning she struggles to re-assimilate.

Elizabeth Olsen, the 20-year-old younger sister of famous child stars-turned-tycoons Ashley and Mary-Kate, bursts with maturity beyond her years and real conviction in Sean Durkin’s debut feature, a stunning portrait of dysfunction that begins like a domestic drama, but steadily becomes something far more sinister eventually transforming into a frightening psychological thriller in its last moments.

The movie begins with beautiful young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) stealing away from a household full of sleeping people. She makes it to a local café but is confronted by an acquaintance that attempts to persuade her to return to the fold. He leaves her, but Martha makes a fateful phone call to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who hasn’t heard from her in two years. Soon Martha is in the safety of Lucy and Ted’s (Hugh Dancy) large upstate New York holiday house. It is here where Martha’s life really starts to fall apart.

Sean Durkin’s superb screenplay inter-cuts Martha’s struggle with trying to live a normal life with flashbacks to her time spent within the confines of a cult run by charismatic, but inherently creepy leader Patrick (John Hawkes). The brilliant editing weaves these two narratives like two snakes coiling around each other, partly in passion, partly in confrontation. Her fellow cult members sculpt Martha’s emotional naivety, whilst Patrick, who initiates a dominating sexual role, manipulates her adolescent yearnings. Her understanding of appropriate behaviour has been twisted and perverted, and Lucy and Ted are quick to pick up on this.

Lucy is distraught that her sister is acting in such a reckless fashion, and she tries her darnedest to steer her fragile sister back onto the right path. Ted, however, has less patience. But neither of them is fully aware of the damage that has been done, nor the source of her trouble. Martha tells them she has left an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, but this is only the tip of an ominous iceberg.

The flashbacks reveal how Martha was renamed Marcy May almost immediately by Patrick, as he renames all the new members as part of their initiation. There is something distinctly Charles Manson and The Family-like to this cult leader and his commune, from the sing-song sessions to the free sex and smothering of social norms and the instilling of fear.

This injection of fear is what is steadily rising inside poor Martha, who has also garnered the name of Marlene by the young Watts (Brady Corbett), who is part of Patrick’s inner sanctum. It is Watts who leads Martha and others on a Manson-esque house invasion, and it is this crime that will come back to haunt Martha most indelibly in the movie’s final unnerving sequence; Martha Marcy May Marlene has one of the best abrupt endings I’ve seen in a long time!

Sean Durkin has made a surprisingly excellent first movie with fantastic performances – especially Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Olsen – and vivid direction, and the delicate balancing of sensuality within the framework of something oh so sinister. A great score too.