The unsettling soul of Martha Marcy May Marlene is best captured by its enigmatic bookends. A seemingly inscrutable title conveys the loss of identity suffered by its protagonist, followed by a denouement that—while certain to frustrate audiences—nonetheless leaves little doubt about the young girl's fate.
In between is a harrowing tale that shares parallels with Winter's Bone, last year's indie awards darling, beyond their shared Sundance Institute genesis and the common casting of John Hawkes. Both films use rural settings and anxious atmospherics to tell the tales of young women grappling with loss, along with the sinister forces that fill the void.
Writer-director Sean Durkin toggles between two timelines (at times cutting away within scenes and even single shots) in the life of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who flees a controlling Catskills cult during the film's opening scene. A desperate Martha telephones Katie (Maria Dizzia), her older sister, who brings Martha to live with her and her newlywed husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at the couple's lakeside Connecticut vacation home.
The narrative swings between Martha's attempt to assimilate into her sister's life after a two-year absence and flashbacks to Martha's introduction and eventual indoctrination into the cruel cult run by Patrick (Hawkes), the group's Manson-like leader. Durkin's depiction of life at the commune is both clever and disconcerting, a slow immersion that emulates Patrick's hold over his cadre of subservient women. When Martha is introduced to Patrick, his seemingly harmless salutation—"You look like a Marcy May"—is the deliberate first step in a gradual brainwashing process. Durkin's direction is so measured that the audience soon becomes as numb as Martha/ Marcy May to the cult's horrors.
Durkin wisely places more value on a dread of the unseen. When Patrick coaxes Marcy May into shooting a sickly cat, we never see the kitty but only hear its plaintive meow. And when a new convert observes that all of Patrick's infant children are male, Marcy May casually replies, "He only has boys," leaving it to the audience's imagination to decipher an awful truth.
What's quite clear, however, is that while Katie holds a natural concern for her sister, she also exudes a chronic self-absorption that betrays the domestic strife that once drove Martha to consider a cloistered cult as a surrogate family. Still, that insight is obvious during Martha's first breakfast with Katie and Ted—the rest of the time is filled with so many repetitive demonstrations of Martha's fractured psyche and Katie's insensitivity that you eventually feel compelled to scream, "Somebody call a shrink!"
Olsen's performance throughout is somber and self-assured, a promising debut encouraged perhaps by her own efforts to escape the suffocating shadow—and cult of personality—of her older siblings. Olsen was busy attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and acting with the Atlantic Theater Company while sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley were making bad movies, gaudy fashion and tabloid headlines. If nothing else, Martha Marcy May Marlene carves out Elizabeth's own identity—here's hoping her story has a happy ending.