Let’s begin at the end: This movie doesn’t have one. If a filmmaking trend has emerged over the past year, it’s the arthouse affectation of the no-ending ending. Meek’s Cutoff pulled the same stunt. I hope the fashion will prove short lived. If a director’s going to ask us to give our attention to a picture’s beginning and middle, it’s only good manners to provide us with an ending.
The practice is particularly irksome when the film in question is well crafted, and compelling and powerfully acted, like this one. The impressive feature debut of writer-director Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a psychological thriller about a damaged young woman adrift between two worlds. She’s brought to life in a star-is-born performance by Elizabeth Olsen, who is, improbably, the little sister of billionaire former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley. Thought you’d never live to see the words “Olsen sister” and “awards buzz” in the same sentence? Get used to it.
Durkin’s script zigzags back and forth in time. We catch our first glimpse of the title character — whose given name is Martha — as she slips out of the upstate New York farmhouse she’s called home for two years and makes an early-morning dash for the nearby woods. We catch on to the fact that she’s escaping from a cult of some sort when people in bedclothes chase her. Once in town, Martha calls her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). The next thing she knows, she’s in a lakeside Connecticut McMansion, seemingly safe and sound.
The truth, we gradually discover, is that Martha is neither. Artfully interspersed flashbacks reveal experiences that have led to her disorientation and increasingly erratic behavior, and offer ample justification for her mounting paranoia. The first scenes of life in the farmhouse commune suggest a peaceful neo-hippie paradise with youthful men and women working the land and tending to household chores side by side. Cleverly, Durkin punctuates this chapter with a foreboding detail: The men are served dinner first. The women wait and eat together in silence.
The group’s soft-spoken leader, Patrick, is chillingly rendered by John Hawkes, who has demonstrated remarkable range in such films as Winter’s Bone and Contagion. By means that remain mysterious, Patrick routes a stream of runaways and lost souls to his isolated compound. Most, not coincidentally, are attractive females. “You look like a Marcy May,” Patrick decrees with a smile upon Martha’s arrival. Her new name won’t be the last thing forced on her.
Meanwhile, back in the present-day scenes at the lake, Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), find their patience tested by their guest’s refusal to reveal what she’s been up to — and by her ever-stranger antics. They’re taken aback when Martha strips off her clothing to join them in a swim. When she crawls into bed with them while they’re having sex, the couple reach the end of their rope. They’re mystified, not knowing what the viewer knows — that Patrick has reprogrammed Martha, and that rape, group sex and worse have been part of her everyday life for so long that she appears unable to remember when they weren’t.
A sense of dread builds as Martha slowly falls apart. It becomes clear she’s still under Patrick’s spell, and a call to the commune in the middle of the night raises both the question of her sanity and the possibility that she’ll be tracked down. This is seriously unsettling stuff, handled all around with exceptional deftness — one of the most riveting character studies to be done on a shoestring in some time. For many viewers, a testament to just how mesmerizing the movie is will be their frustration that the spell it casts is broken several scenes too soon.