“Martha Marcy May Marlene” tells the story of a young woman struggling to repair her splintered identity after escaping from a cult, and in the vein of recent indies such as “Take Shelter” and “Winter’s Bone,” it is a smallish but powerful American drama distinguished by inspired, no-frills directing and a striking central performance.
Two exciting feature debuts, by writer-director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen, are at work in this psycho-thriller and horror story. Ambient sounds and a tableau-style glimpse of some curious dining practices lead off the drama, at a Catskills farmhouse where a cultlike group resides.
The 20ish title character (played by Olsen), originally named Martha, runs away from the household. She moves in with her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), at the Connecticut lake house where Lucy and husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are summering.
Broken and terrified, Martha won’t tell Lucy where she’s been — a horror experience revealed to the audience through Martha’s memory flashes. Details involve the cult’s sinister leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), who christens Martha “Marcy May” and fills her head with warped philosophy. His disciples are mostly fractured young women. His initiation methods include drugging and rape.
However deranged, the cult gave the orphaned Martha a feeling of family, and living with Lucy and Ted, whose materialism she decries, she can’t quite shake her Marcy May identity.
Trapped between two worlds, she behaves bizarrely, at one point crawling into bed with Ted and Lucy while they are having sex. Thinking the cult is pursuing her, she becomes paranoid and confuses memories with current reality.
As often happens when dramas alternate between time frames, Durkin’s dual story lines are unequally effective. The cult scenes, in which Martha transforms from wide-eyed newcomer to unquestioning follower, are riveting.
The lake-house segments, in which Lucy guilt-trips over past issues and Ted loses patience with his messed-up houseguest, pale in comparison. Durkin doesn’t deeply probe the torment of Martha.
The total, though, is a harrowing thriller about one young woman’s struggle and a stirring consideration of how fragile any individual’s sense of identity can be. Durkin sustains suspense as we question whether Martha is justified when fearing cult members are after her. Crucially, he also stays focused on the human story.
Key to the success of the latter is Olsen (sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) in a terrific debut. As her large eyes fill up with anxiety, confusion, and sometimes hope, she is captivating as a shattered soul desperate both to free herself and to belong.
Hawkes, whose Patrick suggests a contemporary Charles Manson, delivers a scary fusion of charisma and menace.
Martha Marcy May Marlene ★★★
– Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy
– Written and directed by Sean Durkin
– Rated R
– Running time 1 hour 41 minutes