Movie Review: “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

 

The call comes out of the blue, by pay phone, the prodigal younger sister calling her estranged older sibling.

“Where are you? Where have you been?”

“Upstate, I think,” is all the confused young woman can manage. Or is that simply all she’s willing to reveal?

And after big sister (Sarah Paulson) picks Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) up, the mystery deepens. Is Martha on the run from the law? Pregnant? On drugs? Her vacant stare gives away little, but we figure out, pretty quickly, that she’s paranoid, especially about concealing her whereabouts.

“How far are we?”

“From what?”

“From yesterday.”

As she settles into the uneasy lake home of her sister and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), the furtive Martha gives them — and us — the creeps.

Writer-director Sean Durkin maintains the mystery about her even as flashbacks start to tell her story, the farm she used to live on, the charismatic guy (John Hawkes of “Winter’s Bone”) who took her in, the daily life in the cult where she was given a new name. Durkin’s film, opening Friday at ]The Enzian, is challenging and smart, a textbook case study of the sort of person drawn to a cult and the methods employed to keep her there.

Patrick (Hawkes) is secretive, guarding his flock from outsiders. He breaks down Martha’s self-esteem and finds her vulnerabilities.

“I know people have abandoned you your whole life.”

Martha’s questions are laughed off. Isolated, yet kept in the company of others as she labors along with the other women to keep the farm going, she is trapped and we fear for her there as much as we fear what she’ll do in the scenes with her sister and increasingly wary brother-in-law. We have answers to the questions that they’re not asking, and Martha has answers that she’s not sharing with either them or with us, the viewer. Durkin’s film has a marvelous unease about it that never leaves, even in lighter moments.

The rawboned Hawkes manages both charm and menace in the same look, and Dancy gives his character a testy, fearful edge that doesn’t make him scary, but rather someone we fear for.

And Olsen, in a captivating, career-making performance, makes Martha awkward and inscrutable, sexual yet innocent.  From first scene to last, she makes the journey through all her moods and guises a mesmerizing and chilling experience and turns a cryptic film into an unforgettable one.

MPAA Rating:R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.

Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes

Credits: Written and directed by Sean Durkin, A Fox Searchlight release. Running Time: 2:00

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