"How far are we?"
That exchange between sisters Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) and Lucy (Sarah Paulson) determines that the former is one day and some 300 miles removed from the place she fled, somewhere in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Martha's story to Lucy is that she has left a boyfriend who lied to her, after disappearing from contact for nearly two years. The truth is that she has left what can safely be described as a cult, much as the effects on her psyche have come along for the ride and will continue to make themselves known during a troubled stay at the vacation home of Lucy and her architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).
One of many strengths of Martha Marcy May Marlene, a memorable first feature from writer/director Sean Durkin, is how un-cult-like the rural farm of Patrick (John Hawkes) and his followers is at first look made to seem, just as benevolent and accepting as it might to any new recruit or lost soul. Most of the story in Martha Marcy May Marlene takes place after Martha has managed to steal away from the complex early one morning, flee and hide in neighboring woods and finally make a faltering call to her sister from a nearby town. Perhaps the only flaw in the carefully woven fabric of the film's story is Martha's escape, found as she is by one of the cult's young men, Watts (Brady Corbet) while scarfing a meal in a town cafe after her early morning flight. After a brief conversation, the simple questions and actions - Watts takes up the meal that Martha has abruptly stopped eating - underlined with menace, the young man allows Martha to stay in town on her own and wait the many hours it necessarily would have taken Lucy to show up. As we later learn, the cult leader, Patrick, has more than a passing interest in keeping "my favorite" nearby and quiet.
The story of Martha Marcy May Marlene goes forward from Martha's arrival at the sprawling lakeside home of her sister and brother-in-law (they were married while she was incommunicado), through a series of flashbacks that flow seamlessly from the younger sister's sudden, uneasy presence in the house and lives of the older sister and British husband. Some prosaic moment - cooking, cleaning, jumping into the lake - triggers a specific memory of Martha's stay at the rural base of the cult. It's a common enough thing in film these days, stories told partially or largely in flashback. But like so much about the storytelling and photography here, Mr. Durkin displays a grace which belies his limited experience as a writer and director of feature films.
The flashbacks parallel Martha's growing discomfort and ultimate trauma at what occurs in the group in which the slight figure of the middle-aged Patrick clearly looms large. There are at first the slightly jarring aspects of life with the group, all of the young women sleeping on mattresses placed on the floor of a common room, sharing clothes which are hung unceremoniously upon a couple of metal wardrobe racks, being made to wait for meals until the men have first eaten. Then there is the matter of the common work. When Martha admits to her lack of sewing skills, she's told, "Don't worry, we'll find your your role. It's always takes people time to find their role in a new family." This one of the group's standby scripts, which Martha finds herself later repeating verbatim to a yet another girl who has come into their midst.
While increasingly chilling vignettes of cult life emerge in Martha's flashbacks, we see her struggle at what passes for normalcy in her sister's world. When encouraged to go for a swim, she sheds all of her clothing and jumps into the lake to swim naked until called back by her chagrined sister. During one of many evenings of fitful sleep, Martha walks quietly into her sister's room and lays down on an open bit of mattress while Lucy and Ted are having sex in the same bed. The couple are, of course, more than a little taken aback. Finally, Martha is made to say "That's not normal, it's private," repeating the words of her exasperated sister, as if learning, or re-learning the concept of privacy. Brief scenes of cult life show its mainly young members not only sleeping but having sex with no regard to other bodies similarly occupied close by.
Martha's attempt to join her sister and brother-in-law in bed says much, not only about her state of mind, but the knotty relationship between the sisters. Lucy doesn't kick Martha out of bed (a grumbling Ted gets to spend the night on the couch), but compassion fatigue is clearly setting in.
We know only that the sisters lost their parents while relatively young. Martha was forced to live with an aunt while Lucy was away at college. Even the fairly callous Ted acknowledges that life with Aunt Dora must have been unpleasant. Lucy expresses guilt that she didn't do more for her sister at the time. Clearly, both sisters have been stunted by their shared experience, much as they have reacted to it differently. For Lucy, there is the veneer of her safe, well-to-do existence, which hardly hides the emotional chill beneath. In Martha's case, the cost of her outward seeking for purpose, affirmation - "I am a teacher and a leader and you just never let me be that! she yells at a dumbfounded Lucy during one of their more heated exchanges, repeating words with which Patrick had plied her - and unconditional love have left Martha even more damaged. Mr. Durkin's script reveals Lucy as neither yuppie shrew nor saint. There is instead an obvious, though frustrated love tempered with the limits of her own compassion. Sarah Paulson is made to paint with rather muted colors in playing Lucy, but her performance is hardly less vivid the film's more emotional or charismatic turns.
The sinister charisma is provided by John Hawkes as Patrick At first look, the role of the cult leader might seem just a variation on Mr. Hawkes searing work in Debra Granik's Winter's Bone. Hawkes' appearance was actually more Manson-like as Teardrop in Granik's Ozarks-set film, distinguished as he was by a shaggy beard, cryptic facial markings and dead eyes. Both characters operate with a mesmerizing kind of control, but Patrick's approach, especially with young women in the group is to come on gentle, with a mixture of fatherly acceptance and mysterious sexuality. Gone is the lower register growl with which Hawkes voiced Teardrop. Here, the voice is gentler, but the menace lurks. You might well believe Martha when she assures her sister that the fictional boyfriend whom she left never hit her; such is Patrick's control that he seems never to have to resort to violence himself. But there is also the matter of each young woman's initiation into the cult, the "special night" as Martha's friend Zoe assures her. The special night is essentially the group's euphemism for rape, involving as it does a young woman being put into a white robe, drugged and eventually taken from behind by Patrick. Martha endures this and later guides a newer member, Sarah, through the process. It's a testament to Mr. Hawkes' skill that Patrick is such a distinct character, not only from his previous work, but from the likes of other guitar-strumming figures like Manson and David Koresh. Look also (or again) at his work in Me and You and Everyone We Know, playing such a different kind of man, and you begin to get a sense of John Hawkes' range.
As Martha's flashbacks grow more disturbing, so do some of the group's activities take on an eerie familiarity to that of the Manson Family. As one nighttime scene begins, a large, clearly well-appointed home is seen in middle distance. A few young people start to appear in the foreground. They begin to throw pebbles, or perhaps, nuts or cones from trees on to the roof and at the windows of the house to distract the owner as they approach the residence. As is the case writer/director Durkin's slow build of many scenes, we're not sure if this is past or present. The tension is heightened by the fact that Martha by this time in the film, in a moment of weakness, has called the cult to check on her friend, Zoe. When we hear (and later see) the protocol used by the cult when answering the phone, all women using the name Marlene, the last name in the film's title is explained. Upon meeting Martha, as he does with all the young women, Patrick gave her a new name, Marcy May, this just a part of the process of breaking down the identity.
As the kids approach the house and someone with fair hair can be seen in the interior of the house, we don't know at first if that figure is perhaps Lucy and this the cult coming back for Martha. We have by this time seen Martha plagued by mystery sounds on the roof of her sister's house during her jittery attempts at sleep. The first home invasion ends with no harm, just a few item a stolen and the owner toyed with, moved about the house and at last view drawn to a treadmill that has been turned on. A second break-in is even more the Mansonesque "creepy-crawl," Martha being made to sneak through a window, and let Patrick and others in. The owner catches them this time and an extremely tense conversation follows as the unlucky man tries to adopt the right tone to get the group out of his house. When violence comes, it's not from Patrick but from Katie (Maria Dizzia), something of an elder female in the group, the wielding of a knife shocking not only because the carefully built tension has been quickly broken, but because the woman's fairly blank demeanor.
Katie's actions are particularly redolent of the Manson women, minus the infernal courtroom sniggering. As Manson "family" member Patricia Krenwinkel said, speaking of the Tate-LaBianca murders to Diane Sawyer in a 1994 interview, "And at that point, I felt so dead inside it didn't really matter." Martha is not dead inside and finds herself more shaken by the incident than anyone else present. She's finally confronted by Patrick who breaks in on her in a bathroom, pushes her against a wall but then comforts her, with bits of cobbled philosophy, "Death is the most beautiful part of life...fear creates total awareness...and awareness is a form of love. That's Nirvana...death is pure love."
Much as she accepts the comfort, Martha can't digest the crazy logic. She might be a seeker, but she's obviously not a fool. Martha is forced to flee, but to what? One of the undercurrents of Durkin's story, as subtle as much of his direction, carries one to the conclusion that it's not only a personal void that leads young people to go looking for love and acceptance in some very wrong places; there's a cultural void as well. Ted might dismiss all of Martha's behavior as "fucking insane," but some of her questions and critiques hit a little too close to the house beautiful, as when she wonders why just two people need such a big house, or is bold enough to point out the inherent emptiness of a materialistic existence. She might be parroting phrases she's acquired from Patrick or someone else, but we all come by our words and ideas from without. Unlike the cult members and the two representatives of supposed sanity in the film, Martha asks questions. It's an admirable quality if not necessarily a recipe for contentment. Or even sanity.
Beyond the presence of John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene, like Winter's Bone is also something of a coming out party for a young actress. Writer/director Sean Durkin certainly gives Elizabeth Olsen every chance to succeed. His script and direction sometimes require only simple actions from Olsen which tell us much about her state of mind, barely touching eggs with a fork when she first sits down to eat with Lucy and Ted (she's not used to eating in the presence of men) or curling into a fetal position on a bed in her sister's home shortly after her arrival, laying on top of the bedspread without bothering to get beneath the covers. The relatively short takes probably help as well; Ms. Olsen might be asked to carry the tune of the story, but never for too long at once. But as the title suggests, this is a movie squarely about Martha and her splintered identity. Just as is the case with Martha, there's ultimately no place for Elizabeth Olsen to hide. Hers might not be a great performance, but it seems at most every point compelling and true.
"Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or if it's something you dreamed?," Martha asks her sister during one of their disconnected conversations. Lucy, sadly, and is often the case, can provide no empathy for her troubled sister, much as her sympathy restlessly seeks a way in. Martha Marcy May Marlene is ultimately a very personal story. The troubled Martha will have to go it alone. And as the funny double negative goes, just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you. But it's not so funny in Martha's case. It's a reality that unites memory, dreams and waking life alike. The film ends in an abrupt, perfect moment of ambiguity, giving the audience an almost palpable sense of the uncertainty faced by its young heroine. The feeling of unease is likely to follow one out of the theater. Even after that passes, Martha Marcy May Marlene will likely deserve long-term consideration like few American films released this year.