“Waiter, I asked for no exposition.” “Oh, yes, you had the Martha Marcy May Marlene!” – A thing I thought
This is my kind of movie. At the very beginning, a college-aged girl (Elizabeth Olsen) flees a small farm and runs into the nearby woods, pursued by a boy of similar age (Brady Corbet) with urgency, if not malice. He catches up with her at a diner in a nearby small town, and although he eventually allows her to stay there by herself, the interaction between them is thick with mistrust. This feeling, combined with the complete panic she exudes when she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up, gets you immediately terrified on her behalf, and even though Lucy, who hasn’t seen her in two years and has no idea where she’s been, does retrieve her without incident, the dread that Something Bad is going to happen doesn’t go away.
Nor should it. From here, the story slips back and forth between the past and the present, sometimes so seamlessly that it can take you a moment to figure out when you are. In the present, Martha (that’s Olsen, in a wonderfully honest performance; she’s also Marcy May and Marlene, but I’ll leave it to the film to explain why), after arriving at Lucy’s Connecticut lake house and meeting her fiancé Ted (played pompously by the fiiiiine Hugh Dancy), Martha begins to show signs that she’s experienced some trauma; she inappropriately skinny-dips in a communal lake and climbs into bed with the couple while they’re having sex. Even though it did occur to me that some of this might have been done out of revenge for Lucy’s attempt to feed Martha a kale-and-ginger smoothie, it’s clear that something’s terribly wrong, and although the couple are admittedly rather slow to react to these incidents with anything other than self-involved irritation, we know to cast a frightened eye into the past.
What it tells us is, pretty much, as bad as we feared. At first, Martha’s arrival on the farm (how she or any of the other girls were recruited to this life is never explained, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess something plausible) is pleasant enough; the place is run like a commune, with everyone pitching in to support the farm’s operations and supplemental cottage industries, spending their down time singing songs and admiring their leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), with a rather cultish intensity that clearly signals what’s to come. And soon it does: All the young girls, we learn in a terribly unsettling sequence, are expected to give themselves physically to Patrick, and the act itself is almost matched in magnitude of horror by the willing way the other women grease the wheels for this practice and how reverently they refer to it. Hawkes’s Patrick is almost a mirror image of his Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, a smiling devil instead of a vicious protector, and the spell he casts over the cult is so convincing you can’t possibly blame Martha for helping it along, much less falling under it.
Back in the present, though, things continue to unravel: Martha becomes increasingly more erratic, both alone, where she gets jumpier and jumpier as she waits for the cult to discover her, and with other people, as she experiences fits scary in their intensity. And it might occur to you around this point, given that in the past Martha has adjusted to Patrick’s sexual demands and even seems happy, that something she finds even more traumatic is coming via flashback. And when that something is revealed, you truly fear for Martha’s safety; it makes you guess that the cult’s general policy regarding departure is akin to that of a Roach Motel. In the present, Lucy and Ted, long overdue for their We Need To Talk About Martha session, finally decide to get her some help as their lakefront vacation draws to a close, and if the movie weren’t paced so tensely, you’d probably roll your eyes and mutter “About time.” (I should note, though, that Paulson and Olsen have great sisterly chemistry that’s chock full of believable interactions, which provide a welcome respite from the intensity of the rest of the film. Also, Hawkes is, once again, amazing.) But Martha remains unable or unwilling to talk about what’s happened to her, and as such is always stuck with the sense that she needs to be looking over her shoulder, and the film’s unorthodox ending only leaves you with the same feeling — part of me will always wonder if she’ll ever be safe.