You may be wondering: Who is Martha Marcy May Marlene? And why does she have so many names? I wish the answer was simple, but when you're a teenage girl named Martha, and you run away to join a cult of abusive wackos living on the fringe in upstate New York who decide to rename you Marcy May, things can never be that simple. The eponymous troubled youth, who's played to a traumatized tee by newcomer Elizabeth Olson, moves through this unnerving psychodrama in a perpetual state of brainwashed shock. Writer/director Sean Durkin isn't satisfied just laying the sad story of poor, twisted Martha Marcy May out for the viewer to gaze at with troubled eyes; he wants us feeling her fear, living her pain, and seeing through her clouded haze of post-abuse PTSD. Don't be surprised if you walk away from "Martha Marcy May Marlene" feeling a little taken advantage of.
The opening moments establish a demented near-reality. Living in a secluded commune in the woods, the film's "Manson Family", led by skeletal pedophile Patrick (John Hawkes), goes through their everyday business of chopping wood, pinning up wet laundry and setting the dinner table. It would appear normal -- if the year was 1850 and the citizens weren't all creepily handsome teenagers. (It's like an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial crossed with M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village"). It establishes their weird rituals: the boys eat first... and then the girls. It also establishes the film's overarching aesthetic, a pasty, washed-out color scheme and extremely shallow focus (we're dealing with the subjectivity of warped minds here, people). Almost immediately, the heroine, Marcy May/Martha, makes a run for it and ends up a houseguest at the home of her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson).
Employing ghostly match-cuts, the film from then on segues sporadically into flashbacks of Martha's -- sometimes merely odd and other times downright horrific -- two years with the cult. As she lounges about at her sister's lakefront mansion, swimming or chatting, she's only half-present. Her body may have run away from the abuse, but her mind can't escape it; she's under Patrick's control on a subconscious level. She can't shake the terrifying feeling that they're coming for her at any moment. But are they even looking? Like no film I've seen, this one peers fearlessly into the disturbed mind of a cerebral hostage. And Elizabeth Olson really shines -- achieving lived-in believability and evoking pity and paranoia -- in this beautifully photographed art-house film -- a film that's really all about human headspace.
And somehow, it feels like a catch-22: For its entire runtime, we're stuck rooted in Martha's dreamy POV. This critic would've preferred more of a plot. As it stands, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" feels like a brilliant, embryonic idea, wonderfully realized in form and style, that never takes shape into a complete drama. The film's final, ambiguous homage to "The 400 Blows" only reiterates the sense that, here are copious chilling moments, all anchored expertly by a crushing central performance, in search of a story to justify them.