As a member of a back-to-the-land cult in the Catskills, Marcy May's boyfriend, Patrick, "cleanses" her and the rest of his flock with ritualized rape and shooting lessons. Sequestered away in a lavish lakeside home in Connecticut, Martha's estranged sister tries to fix her with tall glasses of kale and ginseng juice and pretty pink sundresses. Both are driving her crazy.
Writer/director Sean Durkin has created an unsettling, intense portrait of a girl close to losing her marbles because she can't determine exactly what life after brainwashing ought to look like.
As Martha/Marcy, Elizabeth Olsen (the younger, healthier sister of the bobble-headed Olsen twins) is a subtle wonder of confusion and apathetic bitterness. The emotions glide across her open face and lodge behind her gray-green eyes as she shakily tries to reintegrate herself into the normal world—and fails in both small and spectacular ways. Her Martha/Marcy is not the easiest former cult member to root for. She sleeps for hours on end, mocks her brittle sister (Sarah Paulson) and lashes out as she begins to imagine that her former clan is out to get her. Don't hold your breath for an easy cathartic breakthrough. It's not coming.
John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) is terribly good as cult leader Patrick. A knobby bag of sinew, the longtime character actor is endlessly interesting to look at, whether his homespun fanatic is strumming a guitar or violating a family member. And Durkin's quiet vision of cult life is similarly approachable, intriguing and awful—but most of all it is claustrophobic. Even the pine trees surrounding the farmhouse compound seem determined to choke out the light.
Oddly enough, even two-thirds through Martha Marcy May Marlene, it's still uncertain which is more crazy: turning control of your life over to a cult leader or living an empty life in pursuit of money and great deck chairs. As Martha/Marcy's grip on what is a dream, a memory or happening right now becomes more and more slippery, it turns out that none of those states is really all that safe. R.