There's a moment in Martha Marcy May Marlene where Martha (newcomer Elizabeth Olsen) asks her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?"
That is, in a sentence, the crux behind director Sean Durkin's incredible debut, screening at the 49th New York Film Festival. Durkin leads us through the world of life within, and beyond, a cult, through the eyes of the achingly talented Olsen's Martha, with a non-linear narrative that incorporates haunting flashbacks and current events. It's almost poetic: Martha jumps from a boat into the woods-enveloped ponds of her past; she stirs an herbal mixture in the kitchen of her former life, and the clinking of spoon on glass guides us into her present.
What wakes you from the dream, though, is the quietly unfolding pressure-cooker atmosphere that builds, slowly, until you're writhing in your seat. No overt horror, no over-the-top violence or in-your-face Manson-style mantras here (although the film is plenty engrossing and disturbing). Durkin knows that even the hint of such a world is enough to reel us in, and he does so with the self-assurance and deftness of a far more experienced director. The soundtrack, cinematography and dialogue are pared down to a level of realism that resonates, but Durkin's most important act was the casting of his lead, because the stripped-down body of his vision would've been nothing without trust in his main actress. Olsen doesn't disappoint -- she plays the brilliantly internalized part with so many facets, I can't imagine a single door remaining unopened for her after this performance. She has a date with Oscar this year, at the very least.
Martha Marcy May Marlene follows Martha as she escapes an upstate New York cult after two years in its grip. She seeks refuge with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), shrouds her former whereabouts in secrecy and finds herself plagued by memories, unable to cope with her new life. Instead of dramatic mental breakdowns and sob-filled confessionals, Durkin relays this in a series of moments: Martha nonchalantly stripping off her clothes to skinny-dip in broad daylight, to her sister's horror; Lucy scolding Martha for sitting with her bare feet on her kitchen island; Martha marveling at the size of Lucy and Ted's vacation house, surprised that only two people share it.
Martha's former life, entering our vision in a blur as she passes through a doorway or rounds a corner, is filled with phrases like "family" and "find your role" and "we're all together in this." Old sheets cover the windows of a dilapidated farmhouse where everyone pitches in with manual labor under the watchful eye of leader Patrick (the wonderful John Hawkes, in menacingly charismatic, sinewy form). The women are marginalized -- sharing clothing from the same rack, sleeping together in one room on various mattresses, crouching in the hall as the men eat dinner first. Each flashback imparts more threat into these simplistic scenes, until Patrick ominously tells Martha, whom he renames "Marcy May," "If you're going to live here, you need to be a part of things."
These "things" build to a kaleidoscopic crescendo, blending Martha's two selves into one horrifying high pitch. Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't require fancy special effects or buckets of fake blood to terrorize you; it reminds you that within every human lies the capacity to manipulate and be manipulated. Scarier yet: Although the plight is an evil one, you remain acutely aware that, under the right circumstances, you, like Martha, could be convinced to participate.