Debut film one of year’s best

By Drew Hunt

With the turn of the seasons comes the unavoidable Oscar buzz, a time when movie studios, big and small, dole out their most revered films in hopes that an Academy Award nomination is around the corner. A film that should but is unlikely to gain much attention this year is “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” an ambiguous and psychological drama that made waves on this year’s festival circuit.

The debut feature from director Sean Durkin tells the story of a young woman recently escaped from a manipulative and sexually abusive cult. The titular Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is given the name Marcy May while she lives and works on the group’s farm. Whenever she meets an outsider, she’s told to call herself Marlene. The film begins with Martha fleeing the farm and winding up under the care of her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson).

She escapes unharmed, but Martha experiences mental anguish and increased paranoia once she’s free of the cult. Her behavior forever altered, she remains convinced the other members will eventually find her and force her to return.

Though he’s not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve—often using shades of Michelangelo Antonioni and Michael Haneke to supplement his palette—Durkin’s film is the most assured and refreshingly original debut in years. With its dexterous cross-cutting, glacial yet riveting camera movement and disregard of conventional movie comforts, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” possesses the formal craftsmanship of a seasoned filmmaker and the zest of an artist who’s just getting started.

This is nothing to say of the hugely impressive turn from Olsen, who essentially plays a double role: Martha in the cult and Martha after the cult. They’re the same person, of course, but the before-and-after changes in her psyche require a complete shift in character.

While in the cult, her demeanor is perfectly content and well-adjusted under the watchful eye of the group’s charismatic leader (John Hawkes). That is, of course, before all hell breaks loose and she’s left broken and fearful.

Olsen navigates these tricky waters marvelously. She’s aided in part by the film’s unique structure, which flashes back to her life with the cult to explain her erratic behavior when reunited with her family. Durkin uses match cuts and other visual cues to bridge the two stories, effectively traversing dual narratives without batting an eyelash.

Not only is this method impressive from a formal standpoint, but thematically, Durkin illustrates the parallels between Martha’s past and present surroundings. Though her time with the cult is marred with oppression and cruelty, the communal aspects comfort Martha. Life there is harmonious, labor is distributed evenly and everyone shares in the rewards. Still, the positives don’t outweigh the manipulation.

But while under the care of Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their idyllic lake house—which has all the forced domestication of a Pottery Barn catalogue—Martha experiences a different kind of oppression. Lucy is continually baffled by Martha’s irregular behavior and frequently scolds her for acting out. Even amid these more stable surroundings, Martha is unable to find solace in herself.

Durkin is able to harvest this conflict for striking dramatic effect. He’s also able to make a sympathetic social commentary on the nature of hard-line idealism. Perhaps today more than ever, people are pushed and pulled in other directions, told this way is wrong and this way is right. Martha represents those who are seeking a middle ground that’s becoming more difficult to find.