A young woman looking for somewhere to belong finds it difficult to readjust to society after escaping life with a cult in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a sensitive treatment of a sensational subject that heralds the arrival of talented tyro Sean Durkin behind the camera and promising new star Elizabeth Olsen. Picking up as its heroine breaks free and then using uneasy flashbacks to suggest the character’s lingering paranoia, Durkin’s effective yet frustratingly obtuse feature debut — a sister project to his short “Mary Last Seen” — invites contemplation while withholding the narrative drive needed to break out beyond, yes, cult status.
The tongue-twisting title alone demonstrates Durkin’s conscious decision to resist a more commercial approach to the subject — an artistic attitude likely to win him points with critics, whose support will be essential for this thought-provoking psychological study to find a following. Perhaps the most refreshing break from convention is Durkin’s choice to foreground female characters and emotions, starting with Martha (Olsen), whom we meet among her virtual sisters on a seemingly idyllic commune in the Catskills.
Emphasizing observation over traditional exposition, the film opens with a series of tableaus beautiful enough to be paintings. These carefully composed scenes establish that the women, radiant despite their dowdy homemade dresses and lack of makeup, outnumber the men in the overlarge farmhouse, where they must wait their turn to eat and sleep like stray cats in a room crowded with mattresses.
The film is blessed with such a great location — an isolated white farmhouse surrounded by lush green fields and trees (the same one used in Durkin’s earlier short, which serves as a sinister prologue to “Martha”) — that Durkin must work to undermine the retreat’s Walden-esque potential, which he does by building tension through subtle body language and an ominous, hollow wind noise on the soundtrack.
One morning, without warning, Martha runs away and calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who hasn’t heard from her in two years. At this point, neither Lucy nor the audience understand what exactly she is rescuing Martha from, and yet, without asking questions, she welcomes her emotionally damaged younger sister into the Connecticut lake house she shares with her Ken-doll husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Though Durkin allows these scenes to wallow in a sort of lazy-Sunday apathy, with Martha behaving in socially inappropriate ways (such as creeping into Ted and Lucy’s room and curling up beside them during sex), he punctuates her secretive recovery with glimpses of what she experienced with the cult.
At one point, Martha asks, “Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” A similarly surreal undercurrent runs through these flashbacks, which grow increasingly violent, to the point that charismatic cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes, effortlessly unsettling) changes from a sleazy David Koresh type to a murderous Charles Manson-like sociopath. As part of his control over this receptive newcomer, Patrick gives Martha a new name: Marcy May. (Marlene is yet another identity assumed when dealing with the outside world)
Olsen ably juggles this tricky role, which depends so heavily on the character’s between-the-lines personal history. The younger sibling of the millionaire Olsen twins, she has Maggie Gyllenhaal’s soulful ease and saucer eyes, as well as Angelina Jolie’s husky voice and bee-stung lips. Among the other cast members, “Funny Games” star Brady Corbet (a creepy carryover from the short) continues his drift to the dark side.
Durkin, who met artistic collaborators Antonio Campos and Josh Mond at NYU film school, developed the film at the Sundance writing and directing labs, though the version screened at the festival seems to have been rushed in both pre- and post-production. The largely elliptical script feels a few drafts shy of focus, with the thriller elements undermining the juicier questions of why one joins a cult and how life can go back to normal later: Martha thinks Patrick may be in pursuit, and the film encourages this ambiguity.
As if to further the confusion, the editing slips between past and present without distinguishing between the two, but hits a repetitive rhythm before long. Instead of building upon the tension so effectively established in the opening reels, a certain predictability emerges, excused by a doozy of an ending and Jody Lee Lipes’ exquisite widescreen lensing, which fixes everything with a haunting arm’s-length stare.