Martha Marcy May Marlene 11/11/17 2:47
The movie opens at a rural community in the Catskills, with a group of women serving dinner to the men before themselves being allowed to eat. The next morning, the title character, a young woman played by Elizabeth Olsen, sneaks away and makes her escape through the woods. Distraught, she calls her older sister, whom she's been estranged from and hasn't been in contact with for a long time. Lucy, played by Sarah Paulsen, picks her up and takes her to her posh summer house by a lake in Connecticut, where she lives with her husband Ted, played by Hugh Dancy.
From here on, the picture alternates between present and past. Martha fails to adjust to the middle-class lifestyle of her sister and acts in mysterious and wildly inappropriate ways such as walking into the couple's room while they're having sex. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal that she was part of a weird back-to-the-land cult headed by a seductive and charismatic scarecrow of a man named Patrick, and played with frightening vividness by John Hawkes. There Martha was renamed Marcy May, initiated into the ways of the group, and eventually introduced to Patrick's controlling mind games and sexual abuse. What Marlene, the final name in the film's title, indicates, we only learn later.
The sensational details of the cult story, reminiscent in some ways of the Charles Manson family, are not treated with sensationalism by the writer-director Durkin. Instead the two realities merge in a dream-like tapestry that seems all the more disturbing for being so matter of fact. Martha, as we gradually realize, has been traumatized to the point of being split off from her former self. The film subtly contrasts her sister Lucy's bourgeois lifestyle, with its empty emphasis on achievement and material things, with the defiant anti-establishment communalism of the cult, which nevertheless turns out to be nothing more than a primitive form of patriarchy. Trapped between two insupportable realities, Martha acts like a quiet ghost haunting her own life.
Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen twins, does a terrific job here portraying this lost soul, shifting between fragile innocence, weariness, and rage. The film doesn't make the common mistake of trying to force you to draw particular conclusions. The audience experiences the same ambiguity as Martha, the same disturbing sense of something wrong, something that can't be fixed. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a stirring, must-see experience.