‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

With Halloween just around the corner, you may find yourself headed to the nearest theater for a few hours of scares. While a slew of new titles promise a frightful time, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” may prove to be more genuinely terrifying than any horror movie that will be released this year.

The film is a debut for both Sean Durkin, the writer and director, and Elizabeth Olsen, who steps into the lead role. After premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Durkin won the festival’s U.S. Directing Award for a Dramatic Film.

As the title suggests, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” follows a young woman who has been assigned quite a few identities in her short life.

She was born ‘Martha,’ but rechristened ‘Marcy May’ shortly after being accepted into what seems like a utopic fellowship while living on a quiet farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains. ‘Marlene’ is the all-purpose alias used by each female member of the cult when answering the phone.

The film begins with Martha (Olsen) waking early to flee from the farm and calling her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a payphone in hysterics.

The sisters are reunited after two years of no communication, and Lucy takes Martha back to her Connecticut vacation house, where we also meet Ted (Hugh Dancy), Lucy’s husband and an ambitious architect.

Lucy and Ted try their best to assimilate and connect with Martha, but her bizarre behavior, increasing paranoia and refusal to reveal her traumatic experiences lead to friction, frustration and increasing pressure on an already strained relationship between the two sisters.

Throughout the film, Durkin seamlessly flits between the present and Martha’s past, quickly blurring the line between reality and Martha’s memories of the cult.

The cinematography itself is dream-like, with each character from Martha’s memory appearing ethereal and almost angelic. The farm is seen as a peaceful, lushly green Eden, where Martha and her peers were free to frolic as they pleased.

Dialogue is kept to a minimum, so each action and emotion exchanged between the characters is exponentially more powerful.

Most surprising and chilling is Durkin’s intended emphasis on the environmental similarities between the cult and Lucy and Ted’s home. For example, the car driven by Ted is a nearly identical model to the one driven by the recruiter of the cult.

In this way, the viewer is left unsure of where Martha is at the moment, leading us to be in a constant state of tension and fear for what we’re about to witness.

Olsen, who is the younger sister of the much more famous Mary-Kate and Ashley, is given material that could have easily been butchered by even the most seasoned actress. However, her use of great subtlety and emotional depth is what enables the character of Martha to be set apart from all of the other emotionally disturbed characters that have been portrayed in Hollywood.

Even in the freak-out screaming scene that is practically required in all movies about a mentally disturbed female, Olsen manages not to appear cliched, but rather offers a startling glimpse into Martha’s troubled psyche.

Another scene-stealer is Patrick, the “father” and leader of the cult, who is played to sinister perfection by John Hawkes. A gentle, guitar-strumming paternal figure in one scene and a violently raging extremist in another, Hawkes effortlessly flits between charming and frightening.

Despite the film’s incredible performances and gorgeous cinematography, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” begins to lose steam near the end.

Martha’s reasons for joining Patrick’s cult are left a mystery, and her past problems with Lucy are also kept a secret. It’s rather difficult to relate with Martha and understand her reasons for submitting her identity to such dangerous people.

It’s clear that Durkin meant to employ ambiguity to enhance the viewer’s experience with the film, and while this does to a certain degree, at times it seems more like a flat-out refusal to offer substance, and you begin to wonder what he’s trying to say with Martha’s story.

Nonetheless, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” provides a thought-provoking experience that chills the heart more effectively than any horror flick currently in theaters.

Rating: 4 out of 5