From the off, the film is comprised of beautiful images. Most shots are made from natural light and resemble a painting by Vermeer or similar. All the more powerful then when a moment of extreme tension or violence smashes through the serenity of these carefully composed frames. This happens increasingly over the course of the narrative.
We follow the titular character Martha (brilliantly underplayed by debutant Olsen) on a two-pronged journey. The first follows her escape from a rural community situated somewhere in the wilds of North America, and her subsequent re-integration back into her old life. The second is her brainwashing initiation into said cult, told in flashback (of note are the particularly well thought-out transitions between the two time-lines). We learn her only family is an older sister (Paulson) who, following her recent marriage to stiff Brit Ted (Dancy), is looking to start a family of her own. Her sister feels great pressure to provide sanctuary for her disturbed younger sibling, while her husband is less enthusiastic about Martha’s presence in the house – not least because behavioural norms from the cult appear quite alien to the couple. Slowly we piece together Martha’s history.
The juxtaposition of timelines allows us to compare Martha’s experience of the cult with that of her sister’s marital home. What’s more striking than the differences are the similarities. Both seek to modify her in some way, be it by drugs or with numerous rules and rituals. Both seek to open her up to them and essentially ‘possess’ her. It’s clear that while the cult leader (John Hawkes in a wonderfully nuanced performance) exploits Martha’s vulnerabilities by proclaiming her to be his favourite, she is not loved or respected in either of these homes. The familiarity of one place versus the peculiarity of the other serves to question the level of manipulation we all tolerate in our everyday lives.
The claustrophobic menace of this debut by writer/director Durkin stands comparison of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and the recent We Need To Talk About Kevin from Lynne Ramsy. It should come to be regarded as a cult film in every sense.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (15)
Dir: Sean Durkin; US thriller, 2011, 112 mins; Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy
Premiered June 28
Playing Empire Bio, Gentofte Kino, Greand Teatret