It’s a shame more people won’t have the opportunity to see Martha Marcy May Marlene, the superb feature directorial debut of writer-director Sean Durkin, completely cold and not impacted by any marketing impressions. For no matter how good a job the crack publicity staff at Fox Searchlight does in highlighting its ethereal and eerie qualities (and the movie’s poster is very good at that), there’s a special add-on value to letting this film just kind of slowly wash over you, so unfussy and assured are its modes of expression.
In a star-making turn, Elizabeth Olsen portrays Martha (the other names come into play), a young woman who flees from a Catskills Mountains cult and its charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, fantastic), seeking refuge with her estranged older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their Connecticut summer home. Beset with paranoia and delusions, Martha refuses to open up about where she’s been the past couple years, though intercut segments fill the audience in on her time at the commune. Several instances of acting out make things awkward, and sisterly tensions eventually reach a boiling point, as Lucy and Ted have plans to start a family and feel they can’t do so while also tending to Martha.
Durkin’s film is characterized by spare production design and a muted color palette that echoes its lead’s emotional detachment. Martha is best when it stays away from more conventional domestic/familial conflict (a slightly overwritten blow-up regarding adult responsibility feels slipped in from the after-school special version of this same story), and instead slowly unfurls its back story, with tantalizing hints of Martha’s trauma and her and Lucy’s troubled shared past. The directing is superb, and Olsen’s performance a star-making turn; this is a gripping debut, with one of the eeriest, most ambiguous endings of the past couple years. See it with a friend — coffee and conversation is sure to follow. (Fox Searchight, R, 101 minutes)