MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a powerful psychological thriller starring Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman rapidly unraveling amidst her attempt to reclaim a normal life after fleeing from a cult and its charismatic leader (John Hawkes). Seeking help from her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), Martha is unable and unwilling to reveal the truth about her disappearance. When her memories trigger a chilling paranoia that her former cult could still be pursuing her, the line between Martha’s reality and delusion begins to blur.
Powered by an amazing central performance by Elizabeth Olsen, this unstuck-in-time mood piece stands as the most unnerving kind of horror film: the sort where the unease builds and builds, without any easy resolutions. Olsen plays the multiple-named title character, a member of a remote commune held in the thrall of its leader (the excellent John Hawkes, deepening both the menace and charisma he displayed in Winter’s Bone). When she temporarily regains her senses and escapes, she ends up under the care of her sister (Sarah Paulson), a well-to-do newlywed who is understandably baffled by her sibling’s three-year disappearance. As Martha attempts to make sense of her new surroundings and come to terms with her past, she begins to receive menacing hints that her former friends may not be so willing to let her move on. Writer-director Sean Durkin makes an astonishingly assured feature debut, moving between reality, fantasy, and memory with an unpredictable, hazy grace. Aided by a spooky sound design and some ominous camerawork, the filmmaker has fashioned a gripping puzzle of a movie, one where the out-of-order storytelling creates a whole greater than its parts. Viewers expecting a clear-cut narrative may well be frustrated by the paths that Martha Marcy May Marlene chooses to take, most notably in the final open-ended shot, which raises a number of potential unresolved questions without any answers. Those in a susceptible mood, however, may find moments from the film lingering in their consciousness for some time. The disc includes a memorably creepy song performed by Hawkes, a brief yet fascinating look at cult mechanics, and a haunting short by Durkin, which serves as a semi-prequel to the film. Be prepared for discussion afterwards. –Andrew Wright