Sean Durkin’s subversive little thriller takes off in unexpected directions and keeps posing questions until the blistering finale.
It begins with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) fleeing from a cult of which she’s been a member for two years. She finds her way back to her sister’s big, comfortable, middle-class home, and seeks sanctuary. But while Martha – dubbed ‘Marcy May’ by cult leader Patrick – hates being a prisoner she is drawn back to the fold. What’s more, Patrick isn’t prepared to give up on her easily...
Martha Marcy May Marlene is a quietly sinister tale heavily influenced by the memory of Charles Manson, Jim Jones and David Koresh. Patrick (John Hawkes) possesses a dangerous charisma, as all such people have. He is charming and controlling and chooses his acolytes for sex. He instantly renames Martha and re-makes her in the image he prefers. The girls are drugged and raped, becoming sex slaves to this self-styled messiah of the trees. Later, cast aside, they willingly conspire to assist Patrick in further attacks on newcomers.
Durkin poses questions about the freedom of the woods versus the constraints of the rat race and civilisation. It’s all embodied by Martha – a cuckoo in both nests but, particularly, an upsetting influence in her sister’s cosy domestic set-up. As sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) attempts to assimilate Martha back into the regimentation of society, so her already fractured mental state starts to unravel further. In the cult she was living in a delusion of what constituted normality, and all manipulated by Patrick. Outside she cannot understand the boundaries of normal behaviour. Durkin casts Martha like a sleeper agent, suddenly awakened. Olsen gives a remarkable performance that hints at a form of schizophrenia. It’s a breakthrough not dissimilar to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s in Secretary.