Identity is a tenuous, fragile thing. Think of the years you've spent carefully cultivating an identity for yourself. Think about how much of that identity is genuinely organic, genuinely sprung forth from the deepest recesses of your personality, and then think of how much of it is derived from the teachings, beliefs, and habits of others. Then think to yourself how easily the balance between the two could be unsettled, should one side or the other be left wanting. Many spend their entire lives searching for an identity with the help of others, for lack of a strong one of their own.
It's how cults often operate, preying on those desperately seeking a role, a place in society, a family, or even just a concrete identity. They pluck damaged people from their miserable lives, and indoctrinate them into a new life that gives them a sense of meaning, no matter how twisted that meaning may prove to be. It's easy to look down upon it and treat it as simply idiocy or weakness, but think again about your own identity, and how cold and alone you might feel were you not so keenly aware of your own self. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a strong, defined place within this world.
In Martha Marcy May Marlene, newcomer Elizabeth Olsen plays such an unfortunate soul. In polite society, she's Martha, a girl abandoned by her father long ago, and on her own following her mother's death. Later, she becomes Marcy May, a girl who finds herself with a group I can only describe as a Hipster Youth Group, a crew of American Apparel ad-ready 20-somethings living in the Catskill Mountains of New York on a modest farm. There are a great number more women in this group than there are men, and that doesn't appear accidental. Rather, it seems the decree of the group's leader, Patrick, played by the great John Hawkes. The men here subjugate the women, forcing them to eat only after the men have finished their meals, sleep together in a single room, and be at the sexual beck and call of the fearless leader.
We learn much of this later in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The film actually starts toward the end of Martha's journey, after she's made the dangerous decision to leave the group via an early morning dash through the forest and into a nearby town. She calls her sister (Sarah Paulson), who sounds alternately amazed and inconvenienced by Martha's sudden reappearance in the real world. She brings Martha home to her and her husband's large scale lake house in Connecticut. The husband (Hugh Dancy) seems wary of the girl and her sometimes peculiar behavior, yet neither seem overly enthusiastic about going out of their way to get her some help. One gets the impression that these sisters were not especially friendly growing up.
First time writer/director T. Sean Durkin tells both Martha and Marcy May's stories concurrently, darting back and forth in time sometimes without warning or signal. It's a bewildering technique that, at times, becomes a tad frustrating. Durkin's aim is leave the audience as confused as Martha/Marcy May is. Whether she's in her sister's house, or back on the farm, something is always a tad off, like she can't quite figure out which reality is which. She hears things, sees things at her sister's that make her believe that the cultists might be on her trail, that she might be in danger, but it's never entirely clear whether or not those threats are real, or the result of a haunting memory lingering too long.
When I say that the film is frustrating, I mean only in the sense that it periodically gets in its own way. Durkin's script has a quietly natural quality to it that he brings out in equal measure in his actors. The story is told without much distraction, letting you soak in the performances, the tension, and periodic moments of pure dread without much obstacle. It is only when Durkin tries to get overly clever with the time-shifting that I found myself distracted from the pace and the flow of the story. The way it floats between time-periods is generally fine, but Durkin's occasional indulgence of film school trickery isn't to the movie's benefit.
It's one significant problem in a film that is otherwise transfixing. In either timeline, Martha is an interesting character, and not a terribly overwritten one, either. She doesn't speechify, she doesn't have huge moments of flowery emotional outbursts. It's a low-key role that only requires periodic moments of fire, and Olsen plays them wonderfully. Her young age belies her talent as an actress. She shows great warmth, terror, seductiveness, grief, joy, and petulance at various points in this film, crafting Martha into a truly lived-in character. She reminds me a lot of a young Maggie Gyllenhaal, and not just because of the physical resemblance. Both actresses exude emotion and sexuality well beyond their years.
Equally revelatory is Hawkes. He damn well earned his Oscar nomination for his phenomenally frightening performance in last year's Winter's Bone, and he's arguably scarier here. Ironically, he does it in a completely different way. Hawkes' Patrick is a smooth-talker, a gentle soul capable of horrible things. We often look at cult leaders as these sorts of outsized crazy personalities, but in truth, their charisma is often more soothing than that. These men are able to lead by virtue of their ability to alternate between patriarchal and friendly roles. In talking to Martha, you see an endless fount of charm in Hawkes' eyes, you can see why she would be so easily taken in by him. When he scolds his disciples, he rarely raises his voice. He tells Martha at one point, "I must have put too much on you too soon. I'll expect less of you from now on," like a father disappointed in his child. Granted, this father has no issue raping his flock whenever he feels like it, though in his cold, charming way, he makes it possible for these women to believe that their rape is a very special moment in their lives.
As a debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marelene is a fine achievement. It is an effectively unnerving portrait of a woman whose fragile identity has been fractured, perhaps irreparably so. Durkin makes the smart decision not to spell out too much of Martha's fate, instead letting the audience focus on Olsen's performance and the ambiguity of her character's reality. It was a smart gamble, as Olsen proves well up to the task at hand. Her performance is a deeply memorable one. Here's hoping for more great performances from her as her career goes along.