Martha Marcy May Marlene hits local theaters after closing the New Orleans Film Festival in October, roughly concurrent with its national release date. It has garnered critical raves as a tense psychological thriller, and Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, is excellent as Martha, a distraught young woman who flees a cult in Upstate New York and tries to get her life back in order.
The film begins with Martha slipping out of a farmhouse at dawn and fleeing through a forest to a small town where she makes a distress call to her sister, whom she hasn't communicated with in some time. Lucy (Sarah Paulson) whisks her away to the lush vacation home she and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) share in an affluent area of Connecticut. Though jittery and distraught, Martha offers no more explanation than that she left a bad relationship because her boyfriend lied to her. But something is clearly wrong, and writer/director Sean Durkin initially sets off telling differences as matters of perspective. When Martha peels off her clothes to go skinny-dipping, Lucy overreacts, practically hissing that it's not socially appropriate where they live. But far more haunting symptoms of social dysfunction suggest Martha has a very serious problem. The film teases out ambiguity over whether Martha is the severely traumatized victim of recent abuse or mentally unstable and delusional.
Martha's ever-increasing difficulties with Lucy and Ted are interspersed with flashbacks to the commune, which was run by Patrick (John Hawkes), an extremely charismatic, manipulative and cryptic leader. The group seems to have had no principles other than what was convenient for Patrick to control the group, and he puts them through perverse tests of submission and allegiance.
Fear of the group coming to find her keeps Martha preoccupied if not paranoid. There is ominous portent in every rustle in the woods and glimmer of the lake where she swims. All these exterior signs and focuses are very effective in a voyeuristic way, and the tension never subsides. But there also is a downside to the distance Durkin maintains, and some ambiguity is overburdened —almost to the point of evasive storytelling. Getting inside Martha's head seems like it would have offered a deeper and more dramatic sense of her internal chaos and struggle and animated the deteriorating relationship with her sister, rather than having viewers rely on their own expressions of disbelief. — Will Coviello