Elizabeth Olsen's mentally troubled heroine of Martha Marcy May Marlene endures horrible treatment at the hands of a cult-like group in the Catskills. But in writer/director Sean Durkin's tense psychological drama, the most disturbing moments involve not what Martha's "new family" does to her, but what Martha does when she accepts her place in the fold.
Martha falls under the sway of the group's leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), who changes her name to "Marcy May" as a means of manipulating her. With the reassurance of the other women in the group, Martha submits to the male-dominated household structure, including sex against her will. When the latest nubile recruit arrives at the commune, Martha indoctrinates her into the abusive customs she now accepts as normal.
Martha Marcy May Marlene focuses not just on Martha's wretched cult experiences, but her painful adjustment to two competing ideas of normality. The film begins when Martha escapes from the cult's remote farm and calls her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), even though they haven't spoken in two years. Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) bring Martha to their tony Connecticut lake house where they try to find out what happened to her, even though she does not – or cannot – explain her ordeal.
The younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth subtly conveys Martha's struggle to adapt to her circumstances. She's at once hypersensitive to the people around her, yet acquiescent to their wishes. Tired and taciturn, Martha views Lucy and Ted's yuppie habits with quiet suspicion while revealing a lack of comprehension of personal boundaries. She scandalizes Lucy by swimming nude in their lake and asking inappropriate questions about their sex lives. At times the film's flashbacks blur Martha's perception of the past and present, indicating the cult's persistent hold on her consciousness.
In the scenes at the farm, Patrick initially comes across so quiet and laid-back, you nearly overlook the hypnotic, snake-like attention he pays to his subjects. At a group gathering in a barn, Patrick plays guitar and dedicates a song to "Marcy May," but despite the lovely melody, the refrain "She's just a picture" implies an emptiness in the young woman's character that only the cult can fill. Hawkes comes across as an evil twin of his salt-of-the-earth roles in Winter's Bone and "Deadwood," with Patrick carrying a megalomaniacal assurance that whatever he wants must be in the right.
Only when the group reveals its violent streak and parrots nonsensical adages like "Death is pure love" does Martha realize its dangerousness. At the lake house, she suspects the group of stalking her, which may or may not be a paranoid delusion. But she also feels alienated due to Lucy and Ted's brittle, upwardly mobile lifestyle, especially given the way Dancy's performance hammers home Ted's sneering insensitivity. We grow to worry that Martha will prefer the cult's illusory sense of community to her sister's icy middle-class materialism.
Martha Marcy May Marlene finds the atmosphere of menace in situations when a group pressures its members to conform. Ever spent time with a company, a family or other organization and wondered why everyone else accepts something ugly or nonsensical as a given? Durkin permeates Martha Marcy May Marlene with that sense of discomfort and self-consciousness. Despite the idyllic settings of the farm and the lake house, Martha feels safe at neither place, putting her in a no-win situation when it comes time to drink the Kool-Aid.