Elizabeth Olsen stars in writer/director Sean Durkin‘s story of a woman’s struggles to reassmilate with the outside world after living in a cult for two years. Durkin’s tale is a slow burn thriller that jumps between flashbacks of Martha’s (Olsen) time in the Catskill Mountains and her present paranoia and uncertainty now that she’s left that world behind.
Out of the blue Lucy (Sarah Paulson), receives a phone call from a phone call from her younger sister and brings Martha home to live with her and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). The longer Martha stays with the couple the more obvious it becomes that there is something seriously wrong with her.
Not only does Martha not understand basic boundaries (like not coming into her sister’s room and laying down on the bed when Lucy is having sex with her husband), but she’s also haunted by memories of the cult, which she will not discuss with her sister, and feels increasingly suspicious that they are still watching her and laying in wait to bring her back into their family.
Olsen is terrific in a role that asks the actress to display conflicted and complex emotions, often in the same scene. Paulson and Dancy are put in the difficult role of wanting to help the troubled young girl but becoming increasingly concerned about her behavior and their own safety. It would be easy, given that each will eventually give up on Martha, to hate them. And although Dancy’s character does come off at times like an inconvenienced jerk, it’s obvious that the couple’s final decision in regards to Martha is the only one they can make.
John Hawkes is quite convincing as the charismatic leader of the polygamous cult with an ability to charm his flock into doing whatever he wishes, even if that means convincing the young women to take part in sexual or violent activities. Hawkes is controlling and menacing, but it’s obvious he cares for his flock (at least until they start to bore him).
Because the film is presented almost entirely from Martha’s point of view we’re never sure exactly how much of her paranoia is real, and how much is her imagination. Is the cult really after her, and are they closing in? This choice leads to several tense moments but also a somewhat unsatisfying ending that leaves it up to the audience to not only decide if Martha will ever get the help she needs but what level of danger she is actually in as the film comes to a close.
Although the movie does a good job at showing how the cult has stunted the young woman’s ability to live life in the outside world, the level of depravity (from what accounts we know of such groups) is far tamer than I expected. This is never more evident than in the reveal of the event which finally caused Martha to leave the group which, though brutal, doesn’t quite have the impact I felt it should.
Even with some minor quibbles Martha Marcy May Marlene is an easy recommendation, for the right audience. Given its subject matter its certainly not a film for everyone, but it works quite well as a dramatic thriller bolstered by several strong performances.
Released today on Blu-ray and DVD, extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and the film’s trailer. The Blu-ray also includes a featurette on Olsen, the “Marcy’s Song” music video, a conversation with the filmmakers, and additional featurettes including a look at creating the psyche of the cult for the movie.
[20th Century Fox, Blu-ray $39.99 / DVD $29.98]