Every moment in Sean Durkin’s excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene is filled with simmering tension; the film boils away in even the quietest moments, slowly tightening its grip on your gut until the final moments, which... well, that would be giving it away.
Elizabeth Olsen (yes, the younger sister of the Olsen Twins) is simply incredible as Martha, a young woman who runs away from a creepy cult in Upstate New York. She hides out with her sister, keeping her experiences a secret, saying only that she left behind a bad boyfriend. But the damage to Martha (who is renamed Marcy May by the cult’s charismatic leader, an unstoppably good John Hawkes) runs deep, and as she struggles to keep her shit together we begin to see flashbacks to her time with the cult.
As we learn more about Martha’s time in the cult, the more dangerous they become to us; what began as a movie about a woman shaking off her past slowly becomes a horror movie. Like Martha we begin to look for cult members in every shadow, and Durkin makes stunning use of his frame to keep us ill at ease. Durkin's camera keeps us constantly aware of the background and the corners of the frame, and as such each scene becomes unbearably tense, your eyes continuously drawn to the edges, looking for any possible movement.
Olsen’s performance is searing; she makes Martha a fiercely intelligent young woman while also allowing us into the vulnerability that made her a target for the cult. This is a remarkable bit of balancing; as an audience we're probably ready (or programmed) to assume that anyone who ends up in a cult is weak or stupid or easily manipulated. For the film to work Martha can be none of these things, but she must be able to be seduced by John Hawkes.
As a screen presence Olsen is incredible. She’s beautiful in a way that feels down to earth and approachable, and she’s sexy in a way that feels natural and uncalculated. But more than that she has a relaxed openness on screen that sucks you in; even as Martha remains emotionally closed off from those around her we feel like we can read her and understand her. It’s a secret she is sharing only with us, the audience, and it’s a gift God only gives to movie stars.
Hawkes is a masterful bit of casting; his oddball appearance presents a compelling cover for a surprisingly confident sexuality. Hawkes is disarming because he has an ‘aw shucks’ quality and a laid back wiriness that changes into coiled menace in a moment. He comes in and out of the film, often felt more than seen, but each moment he’s onscreen Hawkes is as magnetic as any cult leader must be.
While these performances (and the performance by Sarah Paulson as Martha’s confused sister) are great, what sticks with me about Martha Marcy May Marlene is the assured structure of the film. The film has two chronologies - there’s the modern day, where Martha has left the cult and is trying to return to the world, and then there are flashbacks to her time in the cult. The flashbacks are structured so as to continue giving sinister reveals about the cult, each scarier than the last. As we learn more of the truth Martha’s present day grows tenser both for her and for us. Durkin cuts back and forth between the timelines perfectly, and he slyly pays off references in the modern day with reveals in the past that shed chilling new light on events. When Martha freaks out about acorns falling on the roof of the house we don’t understand... until the third act rolls around and we fully grasp just why she’s terrified. This structure truly rewards multiple viewings.
The ending of the film has divided audiences. This review is so late I almost feel comfortable discussing the ending, but I know the movie was largely ignored in theaters and I think many people have yet to discover it. For me the ending is perfect and open ended in a way that doesn’t feel unfinished. The film builds up all that tension but it refuses to properly release it, and I love that choice. It’s not for everyone, but it sent me from the theater with dread still in my muscles, my neck still tight. Horror isn’t something experienced and finished with in Martha Marcy May Marlene, it’s something that follows you home, always just visible in the rearview mirror.