Martha Marcy May Marlene (15)
Sean Durkin’s subversive and unpredictable little thriller takes off in unexpected directions and keeps posing questions until the blistering finale.
It begins with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) fleeing from a cult of which she’s been a member for two years. She finds her way back to her sister’s big, comfortable, middle-class home, and seeks sanctuary. But while Martha – dubbed ‘Marcy May’ by cult leader Patrick – hates being a prisoner she is drawn back to the fold. What’s more, Patrick isn’t prepared to give up on her easily…
Martha Marcy May Marlene – the final name is that offered to telephone callers who ring the cult’s farm – is a quietly sinister tale torn from history’s pages and heavily influenced by the memory of Charles Manson, Jim Jones and David Koresh.
Patrick (John Hawkes, from Winter’s Bone) possesses a dangerous charisma, as all such people have. He is charming and controlling and chooses his acolytes for sex. He instantly renames Martha and re-makes her in the image he prefers.
The girls are drugged and raped, becoming sex slaves to this self-styled messiah of the trees. Later, cast aside, they willingly conspire to assist Patrick in further attacks on newcomers.
There are tons of themes fighting for prominence in this creepy family drama. Durkin poses questions about the freedom of the woods versus the constraints of the rat race and civilisation. It’s all embodied by Martha – a cuckoo in both nests but, particularly, an upsetting influence in her sister’s cosy domestic set-up. She is terribly insecure, uncomfortable and odd.
As sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) attempts to assimilate Martha back into the regimentation of society so her already fractured mental state starts to unravel further. In the cult she was living in a delusion of what constituted normality, and all manipulated by Patrick. Outside she cannot understand the boundaries of normal behaviour. Has she been brainwashed?
Durkin casts Martha like a sleeper agent, suddenly awakened. A ticking bomb. Something has taken root inside her and it will not go away. Olsen gives a remarkable performance that hints at a form of schizophrenia. It’s a breakthrough not dissimilar to Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary. There’s real power here.
And then there’s John Hawkes, a slimmer, edgier, pointier version of Sean Penn and an actor who demands attention whenever he’s on screen. A paranoid villain of the old school, he is magnetic and terrifying.