The title is a mouthful, and confusing. Even people I know, who love this film, can’t seem to remember what it’s called.
But then, that’s kind of the point. Writer-director Sean Durkin’s altogether astonishing debut feature is all about a loss of identity and that slippery slope between the past and the present. It’s impossible to know what in this film even takes place in “the real world” and what was just a dream, or more likely a nightmare.
Played by the heretofore unknown Elizabeth Olsen (yep, kid sister to those annoying twins,) Martha is first glimpsed fleeing from a cult compound deep in the deceptively soothing woods of the Catskills. She makes a phone call in panicked desperation to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), but right away we can tell something ain’t right.
In the style of vintage Polanski, Durkin’s swaggeringly confident film utilizes long takes and tension within compositions to conjure an all-consuming sense of unease. There’s something just slightly off about the camera angles and the space between these characters. Nothing in this picture ever feels quite right. There’s no visual balance.
Information is parceled out ever so slowly, cutting to flashbacks on matching movements, blurring our sensory receptors. It isn’t long before we begin to fill in the blanks with young, lonely Martha as she’s indoctrinated into a free-loving, Manson-esque cult somewhere in the boonies, a couple years back. Led by a disturbingly charismatic John Hawkes—who you might remember from his indelible performance in Winter's Bone but here working a diametrically opposed strain of backwoods malevolence—this seemingly gentle farm commune obviously provides Martha with a support system and kinship lacking in her fractured family life.
Hawkes isn’t just her absent father, he’s also her sole voice of support, rechristening Martha as “Marcy May,” and with cutting, swift precision undermining any sense of personal agency she might have had left upon arrival. Seldom has on-screen brainwashing been depicted so subtly, or so unnervingly matter of fact.
Contrast these creepy but halcyon days on the broken down old farm with Martha’s present day, horribly strained relationship with Lucy. Staying in a vast, ridiculously opulent modernist Connecticut lake-house, Martha and her sister chafe against old wounds, every interaction somehow ending in spiteful outbursts, despite beginning with the best of intentions. (They honestly never seemed to like each other very much to begin with.)
To the increasing chagrin of Lucy’s fiancee (Hugh Dancy,) this troublesome sibling he’d never heard about before is suddenly, erratically firing on half the expected cylinders. Martha arrives in Connecticut having lost any concept of privacy or personal space, erratically stripping down naked, periodically soiling herself and at odd times inexplicably unable to navigate the normal social codes of human behavior.
A few hours after watching the movie, when you’ve had time to walk around and shake off this movie’s unique spell, it’s easy to see the cause and effect that at upon first viewing plays like a fugue state. Martha never had much of a chance to begin with, and her fractured family life makes her a prime victim for silky predators like Hawkes. The scope of this particular cult’s misdeeds is, like everything else in Martha Marcy May Marlene, only gradually revealed, but eventually we will realize all too well why she lives in such mortal terror.
Writer-director Durkin, still only in his 20s, exhibits an astounding command of cinematic grammar. There are no cheap tricks here, nor any “Boo!” scares, it’s all classical, old-fashioned camera technique. His cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, also shot Lena Dunham’s beguiling debut Tiny Furniture, which held similarly still frames for an effect as sublimely comic as Martha Marcy’s is disquieting. In an age when nearly every indie movie uses poorly-thought-out hand-held camerawork as a shortcut to bogus authenticity, this young cinematographer’s commitment to framing and composition deserves to be heralded.
There’s a recurring visual motif of picture windows, out of which we can see so many postcard friendly nature shots that in Durkin’s hands feel weirdly sinister. There is a constant sense of exposure, with tantalizing glimpses of folks not looking out of these countless windows, but rather peering in.
We remain in Martha’s waking nightmare throughout the entire running time. Olsen is fearless in plumbing the character’s shape-shifting dismay, floundering when trying to regain a sense of self that perhaps was never really even there in the first place. To the deafening outrage of a preview audience, Durkin daringly ends the film without any hint of closure or catharsis. We’re left stranded between identities, trapped in the tragic limbo of a doomed girl with too many names, and no idea what any of them stand for.
Read our interview with director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen here.