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Martha Marcy May Marlene

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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by Sean Durkin

Opens Nov. 4 at the Charles Theatre

It’s hard to believe Martha Marcy May Marlene is writer/director Sean Durkin’s first feature-length work. It’s also hard to believe that it’s the first substantial role for Elizabeth Olsen, whose work up till now mostly consists of parts like “Girl in Car” and “Herself” in her older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley’s bubblegum flicks. But there it is: Two new talents with a similarly gifted up-and-coming cast crafting a film that shows the careful restraint and artistic clarity not often seen in newcomers, one that manages to be art house while still carrying some kind of mainstream appeal.

Olsen becomes Martha, a twentysomething who’s been gone from home—though what home was before she left is never really clear—for two years. Her only family, her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), has no idea where she is until she gets a call from Martha, on a payphone, terrified and unsure of her location. Lucy picks her up and takes her to the lakeside home in Connecticut where she vacations with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and they set about trying to make Martha well.

Problem is, Martha’s lying about where she’s been, and neither she nor Lucy at first realize what bad shape she’s in. She tells Lucy she’s been living in the Catskills with her boyfriend, but that’d only be true if the Catskills were a cult functioning under the guise of a free-love farm and her boyfriend a supremely creepy cult leader named Patrick (John Hawkes), who renames her Marcy May. Lucy tries to help her sister with hot cups of tea and long nights of sleep while Martha degenerates into paranoia and something nearing psychosis.

The story’s told in chunks of past, present, and some gray area in between that all melt together under Durkin’s expert directorial hand. Martha climbs in bed with Ted and Lucy while they’re having sex, which makes no sense until we later see her in a room full of copulating bodies, Patrick watching eagerly from the stairwell. She hears knocks against her window that bring a look of terror to her face, and suddenly she’s in the woods with a guy and a girl from the farm, throwing rocks at a house to distract its owner while they rob him.

Durkin makes it easy to see how Martha could fall into a place like this, a story without which this film might feel like merely a setting for a writer to indulge his morbidity. While the details are faint, it’s clear that Martha’s on her own. Her mom’s dead, her dad is gone, her sister seems to be old enough that she’s more guardian than friend. And when we first see her on the farm, her face looks fresh and bright, but traces of hurt behind her eyes show a young girl still able to hope for a family that could make her happy. Patrick, as he does for all of the girls, becomes a perverse cross between a father and a lover, inaugurating them with a “special night” (yes, it’s exactly what you think) and initiating sex every time they seek his help or comfort.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tells two concurrent stories, both showing Martha’s painful downward spirals: one into the bowels of the cult and another into personal ruin. The flashbacks show her slow assimilation: She’s put in charge of initiating the next new girl (Julia Garner), repeating phrases from her own introduction with a kind of mindlessness and helping to “guide” her through her first night with Patrick with a drugged herbal drink and assurances that though it may feel wrong, what will happen is good and right. And as the picture of her past becomes ever more complete—perhaps just as much to Martha as to us—her ability to function in the present all but disappears.

The film features no soundtrack, and its forward progression is unrelenting—tensions build and never really release, instead disappearing into the next. It’s unapologetically intense, almost more an experience than a film. But it’s dotted with moments of beauty that make it something more than cinematic torture, as when Patrick sings “Marcy’s Song” (originally written and recorded by folk artist Jackson C. Frank in 1975). “She’s just a picture on the wall,” he sings to the group on the farm, the camera watching Marcy as she disappears into his voice. “With a smile so inviting and a body so tall, well she, she’s just a picture. Just a picture, that’s all.”

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