Apart from having one of the most easily forgotten titles in recent recall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a movie without a point. As a demonstration of the sinister nature of hippie commune-cults, the picture conveys a lesson that was already learned-to-death, literally, in the 1960s. It's all empty foreboding and shuttered import, and you walk out of it shrugging.
And yet the movie gets under your skin; while it's up on the screen, it casts a dark spell. The writer-director, Sean Durkin, crafting his first feature, weaves together two clashing worlds—the scrubby rural commune and a luxe Connecticut lake house—with an intricacy of tone that's striking. Most impressive, though, is Elizabeth Olsen, who plays the film's haunted protagonist and gives a breakthrough performance of the sort that launched Jennifer Lawrence in last year's Winter's Bone.
Olsen—the younger sister of mini-moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, something you'd never, ever guess—plays Martha, an obscurely troubled young woman who dropped off the face of the earth following the death of her mother two years earlier and fetched up in a Catskills commune run by a bony, inscrutable older man named Patrick (John Hawkes, another memorable presence in Winter's Bone). The commune is a collection of young lost souls, and Patrick rigorously trains them in the ways of the new paradise he's creating. By day, his flock chops wood and roots around in a scrabbly vegetable patch. There are also several babies to be tended to—apparently the issue of the ritual rapes to which Patrick subjects each new female arrival. (Following her own assault, Martha is told that the pain she feels is "part of the cleansing.") In the evening, his wards gather around a bare-board table for their one meal of the day—men first, then the women—following which the men drive off on mysterious, unexplained missions. (We later see what they've been up to in a scene of savage menace that will stir a familiar echo for Manson Family buffs.)
In addition to all this, there are regular pistol-practice sessions and occasional all-hands-on-deck orgies overseen by Patrick with hooded appreciation. We see how these kids are seduced into such activities: Patrick is a master manipulator, exerting and withdrawing his approval with smooth expertise. In one extraordinary scene, shot in a single take, we see him with a guitar, surrounded by his flock, serenading Martha—whom he's renamed Marcy May—with a song he has composed just for her, comparing her to a picture on his wall: "She's just a picture, that's all," he sings, rather unnervingly.
The movie offers us no clue as to how Martha has arrived at such a place, or what other sort of life she might be capable of living. She's clearly unstable, but there's little more to the character than that, so we're not even sure why she eventually slips away from the commune and calls out for rescue to her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who's currently living with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their lakeside getaway in Connecticut. Once arrived there, Martha, having long since slipped the shackles of conventional society, proves to be an enormous pain in the ass. To take a swim, she simply sheds her clothes and jumps in the water. She asks Lucy why her house is so big, as if that were a violation of ethical norms. Alone with Ted for a moment she asks, "Is it true married people don't fuck?" And when she hears Ted and Lucy making love one night, she goes to their bedroom and climbs under the covers with them. "It's a big bed," she says, in response to their outrage. "You were on the other side."
Durkin blends the back-and-forth between Martha's two worlds into an engrossing dream state, something just short of a horror movie. And Olsen, with her blank intensity and tethered distress, manages to make the director's murky narrative signify: She draws us into the character, and we want to learn more—much more—about her. We never do, though. Can a woman so damaged ever find safe haven? The movie's ambiguously chilly conclusion offers no cause for hope.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.