Screenwriting teachers and studio executives will talk about the importance of making audiences empathize with a movie's characters, and there are many ways to do that, often by giving them easily recognizable goals or fears. But few recent movies put you into the very heart and soul of their main character as "Martha Marcy May Marlene" does. On its surface, this feature debut from writer-director Sean Durkin looks like a traditional indie drama, but the longer it goes along its creeping darkness and paranoia start to engulf you. First it seems like that terror is simply inside the head of the movie's imbalanced heroine, but pretty soon it consumes everything around her.
A hit at this year's Sundance, where it won the directing prize, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" introduces us to Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who's just run away from what appears to be a commune in Upstate New York. Desperate for sanctuary, she calls her much older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she hasn't talked to for about three years. They've never been particularly close -- this upsets Lucy more than it does Martha -- but they're reunited at Lucy's summer lake house, where she's relaxing with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). It's a beautiful spot, but Martha is terrified that the people from the commune (which is actually a cult) will be looking for her, especially the group's calmly disturbing leader Patrick (John Hawkes).
Durkin's film has a somewhat predictable setup: A young woman running away from a terrible past must relive the trauma through a series of flashbacks that will, eventually, build to a particularly horrifying revelation that will shock the audience. But even if you know where "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is generally going, it's so clever and unsettling in its execution that you surrender to its spell anyway.
In particular, Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier brilliantly get around the usual flashback/present-day structure by weaving together the two time periods in a way that makes them seem to bleed into one another. For Martha, the past is stubbornly front and center, no matter how much she'd like to erase the memories. We don't at first know the extent of Martha's anxiety, but the film keeps dropping hints about why, say, she's disinterested in a drink that has kale in it. Martha generally seems to be walking through Lucy's world as if she's an alien, unable to understand the language and customs of human beings. Was it because of the cult? Or was it always there inside Martha, who appears to have had troubles throughout her young life? Durkin doesn't offer any definitive answers, and while that choice can sometimes feel like a failure to really plum the depths of his pained character, it adds to the film's sense of dangerous jagged edges that leaves you uncomfortable throughout.
Olsen has gotten a lot of attention because she's the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley: Many of the film's early reviews seemed stunned that anyone from that gene pool could possibly do anything of any artistic value. It's a backhanded compliment, to be sure, but judged on its own terms what makes Olsen so upsetting in the part is her withdrawn, almost washed-out quality. But it's not a case of a director simply inserting an expressionless actress into a well-suited role. Martha's prickly, quiet demeanor hides a stormy, tormented soul, and Olsen does a fantastic job slowly revealing the extent of her character's eternal otherness. One of the nice ironies of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is that while Martha never tells her sister where she's been the last few years, she's just as lost and lonely in Lucy's smug upper-class life as she was in the cult with its weird, almost incestuous insularity.
As Martha comes closer to tracing back in her mind to the horrible events that led to her escape, she begins to become more unstable in her present, although, as we'll soon learn, she has very good reason to be afraid. With a dynamic, gripping sound design that seems to be echoing the fear running through Martha's head, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" starts to evolve into the movie it's always been: a finely calibrated psychological horror film. As startling and confident as Durkin's film is, it doesn't all work. By obscuring some of Martha's pre-cult past, it's less than completely convincing why she'd be seduced by Hawkes and his brood. (They give off the creepy vibe basically from the start.) And as good an actor as Hawkes is, he's running the risk of being typecast as the actor who always plays the Scary Backwoods Guy, which makes his turn as the charismatic Patrick less arresting than it would be otherwise. But as with a lot of horror movies, those concerns are almost secondary to the visceral fear you start to feel, almost out of nowhere, in this film. When "Martha Marcy May Marlene" begins, Martha's escape seems to be a relief. But by the end, it's clear that there really is no escape for her -- or the audience.