"Martha Marcy May Marlene," with a frightfully fearless Elizabeth Olsen playing all of those Ms, is a difficult title that perfectly suits this wonderfully difficult film. It'd be easy enough to say this is a drama about the destructive power of cults on youth, which it is, but really what writer-director Sean Durkin has given us is an existential thriller about identity and just how tenuous a grasp we have on who we really are.
Already a hit on the festival circuit, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is also a coming-out party of sorts — an impressive first feature for Durkin and a potent debut for its star, still best known as the Olsen twins' younger sister. This performance, which has rightly put Elizabeth Olsen in the awards season game, should go a long way toward changing all that, with the actress' mix of edgy confidence and raw vulnerability suggesting a wealth of possibilities.
The story itself spins around a backcountry cult in upstate New York that looks organically ideal, preaching sustainable farming and a sense of family to its small collective of aimless teens. The place is run by Patrick, a guitar-picking Svengali in work-worn jeans, with John Hawkes bringing a different, even more frightening chill than he did to Teardrop in "Winter's Bone." Drawing the runaway Martha into the fold is a slow seduction that evolves with remarkable, yet unremarkable, ease — the need and desperation playing around her eyes. "You look like a Marcy May," he tells her with a smile and an appraising eye, which may rank as one of the most sinister pick-up lines ever.
Durkin begins at the end, in a sense, opening with a fully inculcated Marcy May making a run for the woods that edge the farm like a prettified prison fence. A frantic phone call to her long estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) sets in motion her escape from Patrick's grasp. But walking away is only the first step. The real struggles come as she tries to shed the damage of the cult and reclaim Martha, the girl she was, the girl who knew how to function in the real world.
That struggle will define the rest of the film, with the fragments of her years on the farm and the physical and emotional toll it exacted surfacing to fill in the blanks. Sometimes, those scenes are triggered by dreams, but more often the flashbacks grow out of random sounds that Durkin uses to evocative effect. A skittering pebble, a footfall, tree leaves kicked up on a windy night throw us back into Marcy May's life in the cult. You start to tense, like Martha, at the slightest noise. All of which serves only to unsettle her family, which has no idea what Martha's been through — what she, and it, are really dealing with.
Though there is a lot of subtlety in the way things unfold, there is a directness to Durkin's dialogue that is as refreshing as it is jarring. And rather than using a lot of the "therapy speak" that finds its way into so many films about emotional issues, he instead lets frustration boil over into "What's wrong with you?" recriminations, which feel stark but true.
As is the case in most families, Martha's problems are not merely her own. In the time Martha's been gone, Lucy has married Ted (Hugh Dancy), a successful architect; their still new relationship is strained by Martha's increasingly bizarre behavior. Paulson is particularly good as Martha's guilt-ridden older sister, trying to make up for trading their troubled family life for college and leaving Martha behind. The ways in which the sisters skirmish — Lucy torn between love and impatience, Martha between gratitude and resentment — are exceptional for their understatement.
Dancy is likable as Ted, going from accepting big brotherliness to an angry pragmatism, but he's not as good, or as challenged, as he has been dying opposite Laura Linney on this season of Showtime's "The Big C."
It is Olsen's willingness to expose all of Martha's scars — some physically brutal, others as painful for their emotional humiliation — that carries the day in both worlds. Neither the filmmaker nor the actress holds anything back; whether she's stripping naked to dive into the lake at her sister's or crawling into Patrick's bed on the farm, Olsen infuses the moments with the unease of a conflicted soul.
Life at her sister's is defined by the sleek, minimalist lake house that is literally and metaphorically miles from the cult. Director of photography Jody Lee Lipes, who shot another provocative recent indie hit, "Tiny Furniture," gives the look of the film an intriguing sense of irony. The lake house — the safe house — is colder, relying on the humans inside for warmth, while the sprawling farm has a weathered, rambling beauty that belies the rigid rules and the wrongs that take place inside.
As Martha's memories surface, a portrait of the cult begins to emerge, its insidious side creeping up on you, as it would a new recruit. The increasingly twisted counterculture philosophy that Patrick delivers so smoothly, the peer pressure of the community that brooks no dissent, helps you understand how the broken can be sucked in. Hawkes is absolutely mesmerizing to watch as an evil Messiah, his flock gathered at his feet as he picks at an old guitar, with Louisa Krause ("Taking Woodstock") a standout as Zoe, Patrick's favorite before Marcy May came along.
The filmmaker sometimes stumbles as Martha tries to navigate normal — the cult side of her story is the more seductive. Yet like life itself, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a film of rough edges and no easy answers, nearly perfect in its imperfection.