Martha Marcy May Marlene - Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) tries readjusting to normality with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

With patiently naturalistic pacing, Martha Marcy May Marlene takes its time to build from a sense of something’s-not-right strangeness to genuinely disturbing terror. One reason the creepiness is so convincing is because the movie’s monsters are frighteningly human, the kind you can believe are holed up right now in some backwoods compound and just waiting to slip inside an unlocked back door.

Elizabeth Olsen is exceptional in her debut role as Martha, a troubled twenty-ish resident of an unglamorous communal farm. The place’s patriarch is the wiry, bearded and severe Patrick (John Hawkes), whose fatherly demeanor masks the soul of a self-aggrandizing sociopath. Part pervert and part prophet, Patrick and the farm’s other male residents take sexual advantage of women recruited from the streets to join their ranks as very second-class citizens. When Martha tries to sneak a bite to eat in the kitchen, she is slapped and told the men in the dining room must finish their meal first.

After escaping through the woods, Martha — who was renamed Marcy May by Patrick, and later used the name Marlene — phones her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up. Although Martha can’t bring herself to explain where she has been for the past two years, she is haunted by flashbacks of not only what was done to her at the farm but criminal acts in which she played a part herself. Lucy takes Martha to a spacious waterfront home where she and her architect husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) are spending their vacation. But Martha can’t escape memories that progressively reveal more of the abuse and horror that has made her a barely functioning wreck.

Martha Marcy May Marlene - John Hawkes
Charismatic cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

There’s not a bad performance in the film. Olsen manages to be both unlikably surly and yet sympathetic, acting ungrateful and obnoxious to the exasperated Lucy and the increasingly resentful Ted. Hawkes is unforgettably evil as Patrick, who calmly justifies his despicable behavior with hypnotically soothing assurances that everything is part of God’s plan.

Interestingly, this movie and two others coming out before the end of October turn out to be more politically timely and relevant than this month’s specifically election-themed The Ides of March. Martha Marcy May Marlene can be viewed as the worst nightmare of wealthy one-percenters, whose luxury homes are tempting targets for desperate and resentful have-nots like Patrick and his followers. Margin Call shows Wall Street traders as overpaid amoral bastards who don’t care how their actions ruin middle-class lives. And In Time is a social-injustice allegory about how the rich become immortal by accumulating time from the dying-young poor.

Elizabeth Olsen does such an award-worthy job in her debut feature role that it’s almost a shame every review (including this one) will mention she is the younger sister of twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. What makes the fun fact interesting is that there is absolutely nothing childish, cute or comic about this powerful adult drama.

This identity-crisis nightmare also is the first feature by director/writer Sean Durkin, who artfully blends both of Martha’s worlds into a dream-like whole that encompasses her past and present.

The movie’s ending is a shocking cut to black that occurs just when a major confrontation is about to occur, leaving the unseen event to the audience’s imagination — which is almost more chilling than seeing it take place. By then, we know all of the characters well enough that it’s obvious what’s going to happen. And it won’t be pretty.

[Rating: 4 stars]

Martha Marcy May Marlene gets it’s theatrical release October 21, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.