Release Date: Nov. 4, 2011 Rating: R Running Time: 101 minutes
The road to recovery is never easy for cult survivors. Many are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and/or dissociative identity disorder, two debilitating conditions that clearly afflict the distraught young woman at the center of Martha Marcy May Marlene. At the start of director Sean Durkin’s harrowing psychological thriller, Elizabeth Olsen’s Martha flees from the farmhouse that serves as the home for the cult led by John Hawke’s centered but abusive Patrick. Martha takes refuge at the home of her sister Lucy and her husband Ted, played respectively by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy. Martha refuses to tell Lucy where’s she been for the past two years, so Lucy cannot understand or properly address Martha’s increasingly strange and disturbing behavior. Durkin plays out Martha’s inability to adjust to her life outside the cult against flashbacks that show how Patrick employs fear, violence and his warped take on religion to maintain his steely grasp on his disciples. Estranged from her sister, Martha joins the cult in search of a surrogate family. Instead, Patrick exploits Martha’s trust and manipulates her into doing the unthinkable. The younger sister of the Olsen twin Mary-Kate and Ashley, Elizabeth Olsen lends Martha a sense of confusion and anxiety that heightens in intensity every minute Martha is out of Patrick’s control. Olsen also hauntingly conveys Martha’s conflicted feelings toward Patrick: she desperately wants to be free of him, but she finds the world without him baffling and discomforting. Martha’s initial attraction to Patrick is understandable: as portrayed by the calm and collected Hawke, Patrick’s a quietly charismatic born leader who takes advantage of a vulnerable young person with ease and determination. Durkin doesn’t use Martha Marcy May Marlene to attack religion but to show how it can be twisted and perverted to intentionally or otherwise cause more harm than good. With each passing moment Martha’s away from the cult, Durkin fills us the dread that something bad is going happen. He does a frighteningly good job of making us as paranoid as Martha. We look at every passing car with equal suspicion, that it’s Patrick behind the wheel. Martha Marcy May Marlene lack of a clear-cut resolution may leave some cold. But that’s Durkin’s point: when you’re on the run from an evil that holds you tightly in its grip, you’ll inevitably spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder.