Sean Durkin's new psychological drama peels away its layers with unsettling verisimilitude. Its name gradually locates an odd clarity and meaning even as reality is blurred with delusion.
The low-budgeter Martha Marcy May Marlene stars Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Hugh Dancy, Sarah Poulson, and Brady Corbet, and will have much significance for viewers who were moved by last year's much-praised Winter's Bone.
A tale that uses its running time like a smooth-running engine is set in motion when Olsen's panicky Martha runs away from a seemingly pleasant Catskills commune. She attempts to find relief and refuge through her estranged newly married sister Lucy (Poulson) living with husband Ted (Dancy) in a swank Connecticut lakeside abode.
Martha's plan of starting over is a negative influence on Lucy and Ted who have issues of their own. Startling recollections of what systematically happened at the cult-like commune to her by the deceptively poised ringleader in Patrick (Hawkes) has resulted in quite an albatross to overcome.
Whatever research Olsen (younger sibling of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley) did for the role meets head-on with wrenching, stressful aspects of the script devised by Durkin for a captivating, multifaceted ambiguity.
As in an aforementioned film about a young woman struggling to gain control of her family in the Ozarks, Hawkes manages a wily performance to etch creepy undercurrents into an endearing, catechizing middle-aged man. Dancy and Poulson lend adequate support, even if their relational angst and ethos frustratingly detach them a bit from Martha. And, Brady Corbet (Funny Games) catches some of the zeal of Watts, one of Patrick's disciples.
As Durkin (in a breakthrough directorial turn) gets the most out of a stellar Olsen (whose character is unbeknownst to what really has happened to her) and Hawkes, the experience of Martha Marcy May Marlene is chillingly augmented also through its production values as close-ups, framing, and editing are smartly, if sensitively executed to reinforce an arduous, out-of-sorts mood. A disturbing way around assimilation consistently feels potent and original with lush lensing and slick sound work keeping the traumatic heartbreak salient.