Check your pulse if you don’t feel a chill winding between your vertebra during a scene in Martha Marcy May Marlene where Academy Award-nominated actor John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), playing cult leader Patrick, serenades a commune of vulnerable lost souls with “Marcy’s Song,” by the late folk musician Jackson C. Frank. It’s a hauntingly beautiful moment in the indie thriller that shows just how absorbed one can become when looking for something tangible to believe in. As lead character Martha, actress Elizabeth Olsen stares intently as if no one else is listening. Her fascination is palpable with every strum on his guitar. You can only wonder how many others have fallen victim to his siren song.
As a member of a highly persuasive rural cult, Martha (aka Marcy May) is easily captivated by their customs, but eventually makes her escape by reaching out to her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) haven’t seen Martha in years, so when they get a phone call from her asking to pick her up at a remote location, Lucy doesn’t hesitate and opens her lakefront home to her troubled sibling.
It’s not as easy, however, as giving her a bed to sleep in and food to eat. Martha's issues — expressed in paranoia — run deep. Unlike Natalie Portman in Black Swan, who can’t get a handle on her psychosis, Martha’s problems stem from something more tangible. Her emotionally damaged psyche triggers a disconnection from the real world and, in turn, forces her to relive her time in the cult through flashbacks and creepy nightmares. It’s during these unnerving scenes, masterfully edited by Zachary Stuart-Pontier (Catfish), that Martha is jolted into a narrative more complex than just a typical crazy-girl nail-biter.
Directed and written by first-time feature filmmaker Sean Durkin, Martha is relentless in its unsettled tone, simmering throughout at a feverish level. Durkin makes bold choices in the nonlinear way he decides to tell his story, but each scene is crafted with such precision, the complexity of the splintered timeline feels effortless.
Then there’s Olsen, whose breakout performance is the most inspired we’ve seen since Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone last year. It’s a stunning debut that elicits fear, anxiety, and mental anguish within one girl’s fragmented state of mind.
★★★★ (out of 5)
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Dir. and writ. Sean Durkin; feat. Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet, Julia Garner, Louisa Krause (R)