And along the way he gives us a new star: Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen Twins.
Durkin’s tightly-wound feature debut follows our titular protagonist as she surreptitiously slips away from the farm commune where she has lived off the radar for the last couple of years. She phones her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and soon is living in the guest room of the posh lakeside vacation home of Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).
Martha and Lucy share a troubled history. But whatever their sibling issues, it’s clear that the last few years have done a number on Martha.
She refuses to talk about her recent life and bounces between defiance, fearfulness and tearfulness.
Durkin’s screenplay cannily employs numerous flashbacks to reveal Martha’s life on the farm; these passages start off innocuous enough but gradually take on an atmosphere of dread.
The transitions between the present and past scenes are so cleverly executed that we’re often unsure which is which. That disorientation is deliberate, creating an increasingly disturbing viewing experience.
When Martha first stumbles across the commune and its laid-back leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), it all seems very innocent and peaceful. Everybody does chores and Martha is told “If you’re going to live here you need to be a part of things.”
After years of drifting, she likes the idea of being part of a large family.
True, there is some weirdness. There are only four men and a dozen women; everyone fasts all day and the men must finish their evening meal before the women are fed.
A pregnant girl tells Martha that she’s expecting a boy because “Patrick only has boy babies.”
But Martha feels loved, especially when Patrick writes a song especially for her and says he wants to change her name to Marcy or May or Marlene. She’s looking forward to what the other women blissfully describe as her “special night” with Patrick.
Creeped out yet?
Ultimately Martha Marcy May Marlene is about Martha’s growing paranoia, her fear that while she may be physically free of Patrick’s clan, he’ll always be deeply rooted in her mind.
Olsen is devastating, segueing from wide-eyed innocence to surliness, panic and quiet desperation.
Like the film around her, she prefers subtle suggestion to big actorish moments. That’s an approach that will have audiences coming back for more.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.