“How far are we?” “From what?” “Yesterday.”
That exchange singularly encapsulates the intoxicating, elusive mystery at the center of Sean Durkin’s riveting directorial debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Physically and psychologically bruised, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) flees a Catskills farm at the break of dawn and makes contact with older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) for the first time in two years. Martha doesn’t know where she is, and won’t say why, but Lucy picks her up all the same, taking Martha to the picturesque Connecticut lake house that she shares with her new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). From there, we shift between Martha’s time on that once-idyllic commune – where leader Patrick (John Hawkes) welcomes her with the new name of “Marcy May” before welcoming himself to her body, as he does with each of the female inhabitants – and her time spent reintegrating, poorly, into the conventional family unit.
With his screenplay, Durkin deftly alternates between what the viewer needs to know about Martha – her motives, her experiences, her predicament – and what we can’t know, and his direction effortlessly conveys her increasingly unstable mindset. Between Jody Lee Lipes’ precisely murky cinematography and Zachary Stuart-Pontier’s discreet editing, the film flows between time periods with the intangible texture of a dream and the soundtrack of a nightmare (composers Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans favor strings to spare, eerie effect), and though the story unfolds in a moody manner, rare is the scene that doesn’t somehow inform the proceedings – the moniker of “Marlene” is slyly explained only once – or reinforce our protagonist’s loose grasp on reality and mounting sense of paranoia.
The parallels between the hippie and yuppie lifestyles – each with their own rituals and routines, their own ideas of acceptance and menace – arise organically from the proceedings. When Martha hides in the woods early on, she does so along knotted roots and essentially continues to do so when she returns to the family fold. It’s clear that Martha and Lucy were never the closest of kin, for reasons we never learn and don’t need to, and while the older sister tries to extend a caring hand, she’s equally put off by her younger sibling’s sudden lack of social mores. At the farm, though, Patrick is an initially comforting figure, a lurking threat who nonetheless encourages Martha to “find her role” as no one else has. While Paulson is forced to juggle compassion and frustration and does so well (Dancy is understandably relegated to emphasizing the latter emotion), Hawkes proves to be the more vital foil, sinister and seductive in equal measure, a fountain of casual toxicity who rules his cult without so much as raising his voice and easily ingratiates himself with every lost soul that makes their way to his compound.
And at the heart of all this pride and pain and panic is newcomer Olsen’s performance of tremendous nuance and vulnerability, depicting a young woman who tried to go out and find herself, only to lose her identity among the worst of influences. At one point, Patrick associates death with full awareness and, therefore, love, and so far as we can tell, Martha will spend the rest of her days in a rare realm of constant awareness, an arguable state of nirvana that will forever be tainted by misplaced trust and invited cruelty. She may have brought this upon herself (her interactions with Lucy suggest a history of arrogance), but Olsen nails her perpetual state of worry so keenly that it elevates her struggle to the scale of existential tragedy.
We see Martha escape at the beginning, only to find out by the end that she may never really, truly be free of her past. The film tightens and tightens and tightens its grip before deciding, in its final moments, not to let us go, and that precise tension is what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene one of the year’s very best.