While it lacks the gory monsters of “The Thing” and the gotcha scares of “Paranormal Activity 3,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” may be the most terrifying movie opening in theaters this month. It slowly but assuredly packs on the dread and the discomfort in a style that Roman Polanski would admire, resulting in the kind of movie you can feel tensing up the base of your spine.
Elizabeth Olsen — and if this is somehow the first time you’re hearing of her, remember that name — stars as Martha, a young woman whose directionless life somehow aims her into the arms of a farm-based cult in upstate New York. (She’ll wind up using the other names in the title as the story unfolds.) As the film begins, Martha sneaks away from the compound and runs through the woods to get back to civilization.
Martha calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who’s been worrying about her missing sibling for years, and the two go to Connecticut, where Lucy shares a lake house with her prickly husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).
And while Martha may seem normal on the outside, she’s clearly a damaged individual, awkward in conversation and given to doing things like curling up in Lucy and Ted’s bed — while they’re having sex. As Martha attempts to rebuild a relationship with Lucy (and in their family dynamic, we see why Martha found the cult so attractive), flashbacks show us her life in the cult and how things got progressively more disturbing.
First-time writer-director Sean Durkin brilliantly keeps lots of plates spinning: We not only enter the cult mindset, but we also feel Martha’s post-traumatic stress disorder as she tries to cope with life on the outside. We empathize with Lucy’s attempts to reach out to her sister, but neither Lucy, Ted, nor Martha herself are completely virtuous or callous; they behave like human beings in an extraordinary situation, and as such, they don’t always do the right thing, or even know what the right thing is.
Most powerfully, the film drops hints that the cult — which is capable of random acts of violence against perceived enemies — might be coming after Martha. Or is it all in her head? Durkin is crafty enough to keep us guessing all the way up to the film’s powerfully enigmatic ending, and we never get the relief of knowing, as the old saying goes, whether Martha is paranoid or they really are out to get her.
In some scenes, Durkin makes the most out of long, awkward pauses, while others (Martha’s exodus through the forest) employ hand-held running shots that feel like something out of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” And all the while, Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score keeps the tension coming; they know how to turn one long, extended cello note into a symphony of unease.
With just this one role, Olsen establishes herself as a screen actress to watch — her performance is never showy or obvious, but it’s utterly compelling and fearless. Yes, she’s got famous relatives, but if her work here is any indication, she’s going to make it on her own.
Nobody does charismatically creepy like John Hawkes, and he’s perfectly cast as the cult leader, with Brady Corbet (“Mysterious Skin”) balancing him as the pretty boy who’s the bait to get hot young girls onto the compound.
David Fincher’s upcoming remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has been billing itself as “the feel-bad movie of the year,” but “Martha Marcy May Marlene” may give it some real competition for that title. In its portrait of a woman drifting between two “families” that fail her, it’s a brilliantly squirmy experience.