Sundance Review: “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Jody Lee Lipes/Borderline Films

Arresting visuals and a star-making turn from Elizabeth Olsen will put this disturbing drama — set in a rural cult — on the map.

Bypassing the celebrity minefield navigated by her big sisters, Elizabeth Olsen steps onto the radar in this mesmerizing drama, an assured feature debut for writer-director Sean Durkin.

At first glance, the alliterative tongue-twister title begs to be changed, but it’s an eerie fit for a movie in which young women allow their identities to be subsumed or entirely replaced by their hunger to belong. This is a smart, suspenseful reflection on the insidious way cults operate and the psychological vulnerabilities on which they prey.

Durkin opens with a series of carefully composed shots of somber rural serenity. By subtle increments, we learn that something is off-key at the isolated farm where women serve the men first, then eat separately before bedding down in a dormlike tangle.

As ambient noise slowly builds to forge a chilling mood, Martha (Olsen) is introduced quietly slipping away one morning. She flees through the woods and rests at a diner in town, where Watts (Brady Corbet), the commune’s deputy leader, urges her with a mix of menace and charm to return. Those first minutes set the tone for a drama that doles out exposition with deft economy, building a mosaic of impressions from terse dialogue and arresting widescreen visuals. From there on, it rarely loosens its grip.

Traumatized and uncertain, Martha calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who retrieves her from somewhere in upstate New York and takes her to the lakeside Connecticut house where she is summering with her architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Despite being out of touch for two years, Martha offers little information about what she is escaping, and the fragility of the sisters’ bond blocks Lucy from digging too deep.

Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier intercut smoothly between Martha’s difficult reintegration and her memories of the farm. What makes Olsen’s performance startlingly mature is that she plays an entirely guarded woman, but often using little more than the palpable unease in her eyes, she holds nothing back. She is both unreadably secretive and an exposed mass of raw nerves. Her antisocial behavior makes Lucy and Ted uncomfortable, and her criticism of their materialistic values chafes almost as much as her remoteness. As tensions by the lake rise, the farm flashbacks become more vivid. 

Stories like these open doors to all kinds of lurid characterization, but Durkin’s superb cast finds multiple shadings in their roles. The film impresses most in its ability to sustain a mood of quiet dread interspersed with the occasional explosion of violence or verbal altercation. Right through to its ambiguous ending, the spell is transfixing.

U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director-screenwriter: Sean Durkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson
Producers: Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Chris Maybach
No rating, 101 minutes