For a movie that generates such deep wells of creepiness, Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, directed by Sean Durkin) starts on a note of pastoral banality. We see the various members of a farming community doing farm community chores: repairing the roof of a truck barn, planting gardens, etc. We also see a woman setting a table for a dinner, and the dinner is where the first notes of discord are played. The only people at the table are the menfolk. The womenfolk wait outside the dining room for the men to finish before entering the room for their own food. This is a patriarchy, then. When, a couple of shots later, we see how the women of this community live, warehoused in a room full of mattresses with no apparent privacy, it's apparent that this is a pretty stark patriarchy. It is, in fact, a cult, from which our title character, Martha, escapes.
Most of Martha Marcy May Marlene cuts between the present, in which Martha take shelter with her sister and her husband, and her time at the cult. The cuts between these realities sometimes match so well that they are occasionally disorienting. It's a blank-faced bit of styling that gives the film a manic, borderline psychotic feel. The form of the movie is reflective of the mind of its protagonist. She's obviously damaged. She behaves in odd ways that are mirrored by the disjointed narrative. She has obviously had great whacks of her identity reshaped by her time with the cult. Is she a paranoid? The movie is closed mouthed about this point. When it comes time for what would ordinarily be a horror-movie climax, the movie ends abruptly, leaving a sense of profound ambiguity and disquiet.
Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha with a disjointed, wide-eyed introversion. The actress coils up into herself for most of the movie and her dominant pose throughout is the fetal position. She understands the power of body shapes and they comprise most of her performance. She's waiting for the next blow to land. It's a tour de force. Her opposite number is John Hawkes as Patrick, the leader of the cult. Hawkes turns on the charm with an easy smile and a glib manipulation. I think people on the outside of cults wonder how anyone could follow a Charles Manson or a Jim Jones, but Hawkes seems to know implicitly how that kind of charisma works. he channels it effortlessly. Even when he's talking to a victim who is shortly to be killed, he exerts a kind of fascination on him, like he's a cobra gazing at a bird. He's a Charley Manson that even a marginally disaffected person might follow. You don't know how deeply you're hooked until it's far, far too late.
Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't have any of the beats of a horror movie, per se. It doesn't have any gore or any violent set-pieces. For all that, it's a film that gets under your skin and gets you to squirming as it unfolds. It knows how to insinuate and suggest without spelling things out. The psychic damage on display in the film is comes more from the performance, particularly Olsen's, than from any actual events, though the events--a rape, a murder, the killing of a cat, the complicity in a rape--are frightening enough. The most devastating thing in the movie comes near the end as Martha tells her sister that she'll be a rotten mother. This is the horror movie by way of John Updike, in which the horrors derive from a dearth of meaning for its characters.
Martha Marcy May Marlene has strange political undercurrents. It's a movie that rides the zeitgeist but it's one that seems ambivalent about its conflict between bourgeois affluence--represented by Martha's sister and her husband--and the communist agrarian utopia represented by the cult. Neither is admirable. Martha chafes at the size and wastage of her sister's huge vacation home and calls her husband out for his dogged pursuit of money and possessions, but the alternative is a murderous collectivism. Martha is caught, it seems, between two worlds that have no place for her, a marginal woman who has no anchor to any kind of meaning beyond the terrors of her past and future. Is this the pulse of the zeitgeist? It might be.