This year's Winter's Bone. A slow, quietly unsettling, Sundance-sanctioned drama about the titular multi-identitied character (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who escapes from a small cult in rural upstate New York. Retrieved by her generous though estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), Martha – rechristened "Marcy May" by the cult – seems all right at first, but she gradually starts to crumble as she recuperates at the summer lakeside house Lucy shares with her yuppie husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).
Unwilling to explain what she was actually up to over the past two years, Martha simply lets Lucy believe that she was shacking up with a bad boyfriend. As such, when Martha exhibits genuinely weird behavior – such as crawling into Lucy and Ted's bed while they're having sex – Lucy cannot comprehend what scarring experiences her little sister truly went through. The audience is informed, however, through multiple flashbacks.
These glimpses of daily life on the cult's farmland paint an impressionistic picture of the classic American cult: we are not treated to any Manson-like ravings from the leader (the ever-capable John Hawkes, an actor born to play dirtbags) or hysterical outbursts from brainwashed women. Instead, Martha Marcy May Marlene (the final name is the phony moniker Martha uses when contacting the outside world from within the cult) is, for the most part, only suggestive of the dark underpinnings of this nameless, unremarkable collective.
Writer/director Durkin's goal appears to be to demystify our concepts of cult life. By focusing on the banality of this small group of more or less ordinary people, the inference is that a gang like this might be quietly existing just up the street from you. Still, the typical cult hallmarks are on display, chiefly the charismatic, controlling male leader who establishes arbitrary rules to keep everyone in line, then calmly draws his willful followers into performing disturbing acts.
But there's something missing in Martha Marcy May Marlene: a first act.
The thing is, we're never privy to just how Martha got roped into this bunch in the first place. Although the movie gradually explains that she had been alone and without stable family support at the time she joined up – presumably at the age of 19 – she appears perfectly sane and intelligent. Thus it's hard to really accept that she had zero hesitance about what was clearly not just a commune of cool kids hanging out, but a genuine cult fronted by a godlike ringleader.
Durkin may respond that the "why" and the "how" don't matter, but although the scruffy Hawkes rises above his white trash looks and conveys a sort of fatherly authority, nothing in the film convinced me of his power. The story's goal, in my opinion, should be to convince us of why someone might come to idolize him: what kind of charisma he'd have to have, or how hopeless his followers would otherwise have to be. In other words, we should be able to say, "I could see how Martha would fall for this guy." But making a cult leader look genuinely attractive is difficult to pull off, and I suspect Durkin simply skirted the challenge by eliminating this key chapter from his story.
As a result, while Martha Marcy May Marlene succeeds to some degree as a dry examination of this cult escapee's damaged mind, and it even works as a low-key psychological thriller, on the whole I found it to be aloof and uninvolving. Others may disagree: my wife, who's usually a harsher critic of films than I am, found it quite effective.