From the film’s tongue tied title to the carefully constructed creepiness inhabiting every second of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin has excelled in his debut feature, avoiding any sucker punching at all and instead vaing for a beautifully subtle and complicated paranoia exercise. At the center of the piece is the beautiful but tortured soul of Martha (a twisting and turning performance by Elizabeth Olsen); a young woman who has escaped the grasp of an abusive Manson-esque cult deep in the woods and flees to her sister Lucy (an equally formidable Sarah Paulson),her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) and their scenic house on the lake.
Through focused and restrained editing and a brilliant, complex chronology Durkin unfolds a paranoia, executed to perfection, living deep within Martha, haunting her since her escape. Placing reference points along the way like some kind of morbid treasure hunt and dreamily moving back and forth between the past present and perhaps neither, Martha Marcy May Marlene tightens slowly around you, although, like me, you may be unaware of it throughout the duration.
Superficially devoid of any revelatory twist or shock, it’s the constantly washing, eerie quality of the film, including a cold but short lived performance by John Hawkes as Cult leader Patrick, which lingers long after the silencing climax. Taking pointers from Polanski, Haneke and even Bergman to a certain extent, Durkin brainwashes his audience with skill and pace letting our own imagination do the hard work even, thankfully, in some of the films most shocking scenes.
Olsen is quietly brilliant as Martha, brooding, sweet and confused all at the same time, struggling with her past, her present and her perception of the family she had and her real family, aguing with Lucy and Ted over dinner about consumerism, life and what it means to be human in the world, every perception skewed by her 2 years in Patrick’s farmhouse cult. The films most mainstream concept comes with the threat of her old “family” hunting her down but even that is handled by the film makers with a disregard so bold it boggles the mind. And so it should.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a difficult to pin the film down while watching and even harder so afterward. But as Mr Lynch said; “Once a mystery is solved its not really a mystery at all”. Durkin grasps this concept with both hands and turns a simple and bare film into something which defies category and, if you disregard the horrible tonally misleading and honestly hideous trailer, it manages to shock, lull and oddly, soothe its viewer into a psychological thriller which most film makers would have turned into something resembling Wrong Turn 6.
For myself, MMMM is a haunting and superiorly constructed experience which has taken up far greater a number of hours of pondering than it’s gliding 1h 45m running time should warrant, but that in itself is as much reason for you to go see it as it is for me to watch it again.