Martha Marcy May Marlene (try saying that three times fast) is writer/director Sean Dirkin's first stab at a feature length film. Starring Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley), Sarah Paulson and John Hawkes, it is the story of a young woman attempting to deal with the psychological fallout after escaping from an abusive modern day cult (echoes of the 'Family' of Charles Manson, or even the 'Branch Davidians' of David Koresh).
The film begins where most others would end; with Martha's frantic woodland dash to freedom from a dilapidated farmhouse in the Catskills, where she has been for two years. After phoning from the nearest town, she ends up at the glossy lakeside home of her sister and brother-in-law in Connecticut. The story of Martha's experiences with her 'other family' are told gradually, as if she is slowly drawing forgotten things from her subconscious. This is intercut with instances of Martha's ever more erratic behaviour following her escape; it becomes clear that she isn't just going to walk this one off.
Although set in the present, for the most part Martha feels incredibly seventies - the characters spend most of their time in floral, hippyish clothing, grubbing about in the soil and gathering around for guitar sessions in the barn. Cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) is Manson by any other name, a charismatic psychopath surrounding himself with impressionable youngsters, pretending to have some sort of spiritual agenda in order to control and take advantage of them. That's not to say that the film is derivative; although it feels familiar, perhaps it is so for a reason - the familiarity makes what Martha goes through a little too close for comfort. What the film does especially well is casually yet definitely indicate the terrible identity-erasing power of the cult; when Patrick changes Martha's name, he does it almost offhandedly; "You look like a Marcy May," he says, and that's that ('Marlene' is the name that the cult women use when they have to answer the phone).
Apart from the loss of personal identity, one of the most disturbing things about the cult is the ease with which the female members seem to accept the dominance of the men - among other things, they must wait outside subserviently while the men eat, and they must submit to Patrick's horrific 'cleansing ritual'. The only function of the male members seems to be to go out and recruit more impressionable young women on Patrick's behalf, and occasionally build a few fences (one wonders if Patrick bothers to rename the men, claiming ownership of them the way he does the women).
The structure of the film can't really be referred to as 'flashback'; the viewers are not 'flashed' back through time, rather we are witness to Martha's struggle as she remembers each piece of her past, and then fails to cope with it. In the March 2012 issue of Sight and Sound Magazine, Dirkin tells Johnathan Romney:
"I never tried to be tricky. I don't like films with flashbacks, I don't like films that play tricks. So I never thought of it like that. To me, her emotional journey is linear. I thought it was literally what she was going through emotionally, in a very straightforward way."
In other words, the concept of the film is that we are following Martha through her emotional rollercoaster in the weeks after her escape; not looking back at things that have happened, but looking at the effect they are having on her now. Martha is damaged, perhaps irreparably, by what has happened to her; she fears recapture by the cult, and probably will do so for the rest of her life. There are some clues that the cult may have followed her and know where she is, but it is unclear whether these are real, or exist solely in Martha's confused mind.
Elizabeth Olsen is a revelation as Martha, managing to capture all of her emotional stages perfectly; innocent convert, vulnerable victim, and scarily consummate disciple are all pulled off with aplomb. John Hawkes is also extremely good as the unsettling Patrick (Hawkes also drew attention recently at the 2012 Sundance festival when he played a man in an iron lung in The Surrogate). Despite the great acting, clever structure, and dangerously realistic represention of the cult, there is still a lingering feeling that something is missing from Martha - although this may be only because the ending is so abrupt, leaving many questions unanswered. When considered, the suddenness of the final cut may in fact be the scariest thing about this film (which isn't really the 'thriller' it claims to be). Dirkin's sudden cut mid-scene leaves one with the distinct impression that, although the movie might be over, it's still not over for Martha (Marcy May), and it probably never will be.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is on general release in the UK and is a KINOLENS Film of the Moment.