In “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” written and directed by first-timer Sean Durkin, Elizabeth Olsen gives a remarkable performance as a young woman recovering from her life in a cult. The psychological details that led to her joining the cult in upstate New York – which at its worst is Mansonlike – are left deliberately vague. Also vague are the ways in which she slowly moves back into normalcy, if indeed she does so at all.
Having escaped the cult, in a daze, she is taken in by her estraged sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy) to their summer lakeside home in Connecticut. There Martha (who at various time goes by the other three names in the film’s title) upends her sister’s marriage with her wayward behavior. (In one scene she sneaks into the couples’ bedroom while they are making love and silently observes). Durkin intersperses the present-day scenes with increasingly revelatory flashbacks from Martha’s two years in the cult. The leader, played by hatchet-faced John Hawkes, is enough to give anyone the willies.
Durkin is a bit too fond of drawn-out scenes of ominous anomie, and he doesn’t provide enough psychological ballast for Martha’s misery. He doesn’t need to. Olsen, with her angelic face and hard-bitten voice, provides it for him. Grade: B (Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language.)