The indie psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't hide that it's a two-note film. Rather, first-time feature writer-director Sean Durkin structures his film to play these two notes, alternatingly, until they blend into one another. A character study of sorts, Martha Marcy May Marlene points with its alliterative title to the blurring of self necessary to brainwash. The Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) in question allows herself to be absorbed by a cult, a forced-smiley bunch ruled by a Svengali who tells her, "You look like a Marcy May." ("Marlene" refers to a code name shared by the cult's women.) Lending his usual stamp of unglamorous authenticity, John Hawkes plays the cult leader as an ideological and sexual seducer of the highest order.
Taking turns with Martha's stint in the cult is a second timeline, depicting her escape to mainstream society, as represented by her superior sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and impatient brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy's lake house seems wholly alien to Martha, who has lost any social graces she might have had. As a matter of course, she questions the privileged lifestyle of her hosts (after a well-peopled rural commune, Lucy's sizeable, well-appointed home seems obscene), and Martha's disconnect leads to unnerving faux pas, like padding into Lucy and Ted's room and curling up on the end of the bed while they're having sex.
The cult scenes depict the loss of boundaries that make Martha's present actions understandable, but we're never quite made privy to what, in the first place, made Martha prone to a cult and its seemingly transparent sexual overtures (“You need to share yourself—don't be selfish"). In one key moment, Hawkes' Patrick purrs to Martha words she must have longed to hear: "You're a teacher and a leader." Presumably, no one has ever believed (or expressed) that Martha has had anything to offer in the personality department (to paraphrase the Smothers Brothers: Mom must've liked Lucy best).
Durkin's best trick comes in the form of seamless transitions from present to past, residual damage creating fissures that bode a full-scale freakout and imply that Martha suffers from PTSD. With the possible exception of the film's polarizing resolution, Durkin seems sincere in his attempt to consider the methodology and psychological impact of cults, but by that ending, audiences may well wonder if they've been psychologically manipulated just as much as Martha. At least, though the insights here aren't as plentiful as Durkin seems to think, Olsen's fine work as the off-balance, paranoid anti-hero helps to create that illusion.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]