There are some women whose secrets shine in their eyes. Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is one of
them. She seems to radiate uncertainty, dread and vulnerability. She’s on the run, both from a backwoods cult and, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” writer-director Sean Durkin convinces us, from herself.
Those four names represent three identities. Martha is the true — or at least the original —
persona, an adventurous and spirited type, open to new possibilities. Marcy May is her name within the “family” she has been absorbed into, the identity given to her by the charismatic and controlling Patrick (John Hawkes). He’s a smiling scoundrel who uses love and respect as weapons: He makes the people around him want to please him, then stands back and watches as they compete for his attention and praise. Marlene is a phantom, a character created to misdirect and stonewall outsiders who threaten Patrick and his followers.
You have probably heard that Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, the twins who made a fortune peddling cutesy-poo girlishness and saccharine sweetness. Olsen is their complete opposite, an actress who plunges into dark waters with complete abandon, the
same way Martha fearlessly skinnydips in front of neighbors. The more she holds back, the more intrigued we become. As the pieces of Durkin’s fragmented chronicle begin to connect, it becomes obvious Martha is about a heartbeat away from completely falling apart.
Durkin’s goal is to put his viewers in the same state of paranoia and chronic uneasiness as
Martha, and he succeeds. Watching Martha trying — and continually failing — to slip back into the rhythms of “normal life” in the home of her sympathetic but emotionally distant sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), is both riveting and heartbreaking. Although Martha makes all the right moves, she never quite winds up where she wants to be; there’s always something slightly “off” about her, which fuels the movie’s ominous mood. As the tensions between Martha and her mystified brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy), become impossible to brush aside, the film slips around you like a boa constrictor, slowly but steadily increasing its hold.
The strategy Durkin uses to toy with the audience is remarkably similar to the method Patrick employs to maintain his hold on his acolytes: disorientation. “Martha” jumps from past to present and back again at regular intervals, so that it’s not always immediately clear if we’re seeing the recovering Martha or the spellbound Marcy May in action.
The movie is awash in unintentionally unanswered questions (even in its shattering final shot) that also keep us wondering. The true nature of Patrick’s organization remains foggy, although Hawkes’ mesmerizing presence makes it quite clear why Patrick is a born leader. When Patrick seduces Martha by strumming a guitar and singing a song in her honor, Olsen’s transfixed eyes show us Martha’s defenses crumbling away, and we understand completely how Patrick works his manipulative magic.
Paulson and Dancy are also outstanding as they walk that fine line between concern and wariness. They want to reach out and save Martha, yet (probably justifiably) they’re afraid of the long-term consequences of getting too close to her. Durkin’s frightening/fascinating work gives us a similar sensation: Don’t be surprised if you leave the theater with that "what a great film — I hope I never have to see it again" feeling.