I just adore movies where evil happens in plain daylight. I have not felt so creeped out by a movie in a long time. Writer-director Sean Durkin's extraordinary film is a psychological horror story about Martha, the outstanding Elizabeth Olsen (sister of the celebrity twins), in a breakthrough performance, who escapes from a cult and goes back to her affluent sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, also excellent). As she starts a new life at her sister's, certain innocuous moments trigger traumatic memories in her, and the movie goes back and forth seamlessly between the present and her life in the cult.
The cult at first looks like a naive commune of hippies, led by Patrick, a scrawny, not particularly charismatic guy (John Hawkes). But the bizarreness and the menace of controlled chaos, seep in instantly. People sleep huddled together on mattresses on the floor, the men eat first as the women wait (starving people is one method of mind control), people share clothes and supposedly try to start up a farm, but it is not clear how they make a living.
Patrick has an emissary (creepy Brady Corbet) who brings lost young women from nearby towns. They are received warmly, and at first it seems like a cool place to chill out from the demands of reality. Martha arrives because her good friend Zoe is already there. Durkin lets the details of life in the cult trickle steadily and become more and more disturbing as Martha becomes more unhinged at her sister's house. Durkin and his editor sustain the double helix of the structure with great fluidity, as they let the creepiness accrue without hurry. We see the daily dismantling of self at the cult, but to watch Martha being unable to behave normally once she is safe, is just as fascinating. She has been brainwashed out of the most basic social behaviors, and, as she does not confide in her sister, she and her husband have no idea why she acts so strange. She says she broke up with a boyfriend with whom she was living in the Catskills, something that seems to horrify her sister. It is completely believable that it would never occur to them that she has been in a cult. They know nothing about her.
Besides being a chilling trip into the dangers of falling victim to a cult, which for my taste is scarier than vampires, zombies, or ghosts, the movie is also about American social disconnection, which is also scary as hell. Martha has not been in touch with her sister, her only surviving family member, for two years. Magnificent Arepa and I were saying that if Martha were a Latina, she would not have lasted 2 days without her entire family going on a search and rescue mission. In the US, you are on your own: that's the American way. It is common for people to drift out of society. In the end, the lost souls who end up in bizarre cults are looking for an alternate family, and Patrick, an incestuous father figure, a serial sexual abuser, couches life in the cult in those familial terms. Through a hodgepodge philosophy of so-called freedom and enforced communal life, Patrick strips his charges from their moral bearings and their willpower, besides drug-enabled sex and other nasty mind games. Nobody ever stops around the cult compound to check it out. Evil can flourish undisturbed where nobody cares for their neighbor.
Lucy is married to a wealthy New York City architect (Hugh Dancy), and Martha stays at their country retreat in Connecticut, so spacious that Martha questions, not without a point, why two people need to have such a big place. The wealthy married couple are classic strivers, they want to have kids, they work their asses off and they enjoy the fruits of their wealth. They may be egotists, but they have functional egos. Cults deprive you of your ego in the positive sense of the word: they strip away who you are, your values, your integrity. Martha seems to have kept what little ego she had before she arrived at the cult: as opposed to others who are completely brainwashed, she bristles at incidents of cruelty, and there is a part of her that Patrick psychopathic ego can't touch, which is why she escapes.
Durkin's successfully expresses Martha's sensation of not knowing where she is, where she is waking up, how much time has elapsed, how close or far places are from each other, yet, this intelligent, disciplined film makes sure the audience always knows what's happening, even as we share Martha's disorientation. As far as I'm concerned, the chilling ending is what turns this movie, which could pass as a psychological drama up to that point, into a quietly devastating horror film.
The more I think of Martha Marcy May Marlene, the more it gives me the shivers.
It's a wonderful feeling.