Crawl­ing out of Eden

This tale of a young woman’s ef­forts to es­cape a sin­is­ter hip­pie cult boasts a qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing cen­tral per­for­mance by El­iz­a­beth Olsen, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews -

ODD, PEREN­NI­ALLY som­nam­bu­list Martha (El­iz­a­beth Olsen) calls her es­tranged sis­ter Lucy (Sarah Paul­son) with a re­quest to come pick her up. It’s been years since the sib­lings have spo­ken, but Martha is ret­i­cent about what­ever it is she’s run­ning away from.

Lucy and hus­band Ted (Hugh Dancy) wel­come the trou­bled girl into their swish Con­neti­cut lake house, not know­ing that, for two years, Martha has lived as Marcy May in a re­li­gious hip­pie cult deep in the Catskills.

Flash­backs re­veal her in­doc­tri­na­tion un­der Pa­trick (John Hawkes, ex­cel­lent), a charis­matic so­ciopath with shades of Charles Man­son and David Koresh. In com­mon with the rest of the aban­doned and dam­aged women who work the com­mune, Marcy May soon dis­ap­pears into a stu­por of sex­ual and do­mes­tic servi­tude.

This is no new Eden; the girls can only use the name “Mar­lene” for com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the out­side world, they’re con­sis­tently menaced by Pa­trick’s right-hand hood­lum Watts (Brady Cor­bet), they may only eat when the men are fin­ished at the ta­ble, and they sleep on pal­lets, rarely with­out in­ter­rup­tion.

It re­quires a dread­ful es­ca­la­tion for Marcy May to make a break for it. Or has she? Is it a quirk of Martha’s para­noia, or have some of the cult mem­bers fol­lowed her to her sis­ter’s home?

Mean­while, Martha’s in­creas­ingly frag­mented psy­che makes her an un­pop­u­lar house­guest. Years of de­hu­man­i­sa­tion have left her with no time for such niceties as wear­ing clothes or not ask­ing “Do you ever have that feel­ing where you can’t tell if some­thing is a mem­ory or if it’s some­thing you dreamed?”

Sean Durkin’s com­pelling thriller caused a stir at last year’s Sun­dance, where the first-timer walked off with the gong for best di­rec­tor. Much of the hoopla con­cerned El­iz­a­beth Olsen’s dev­as­tat­ing, trance-like per­for­mance. Shouldn’t the younger sis­ter of child starsturned-use­less-celebu­tantes be out smash­ing up Fer­raris or par­ty­ing with tragic A-lis­ters?

As it hap­pens, Martha Marcy May Mar­lene sim­ply could not work with­out Olsen. Her con­vinc­ing por­trait of dis­as­so­ci­a­tion shores up a slip­pery chronol­ogy and keeps the viewer guess­ing long af­ter the cred­its roll. Tak­ing cues from her lead, Jody Lee Lipes’s cam­era twitches with in­tent, then stares off in the dis­tance. The score by Daniel Bensi and Saun­der Jur­ri­aans rum­bles with dis­con­tent.

As with pre­vi­ous Sun­dance cross­over Win­ter’s Bone (also fea­tur­ing Hawkes), Martha Marcy May Mar­lene draws heav­ily on the men­ace of the out­doors. Whether real or imag­ined, ev­ery branch out­side Lucy’s lux­u­ri­ous house po­ten­tially masks a cult mem­ber hell-bent on vengeance. In­side, it’s a Lars von Trier movie.

Sit tight for the un­re­solved killer end­ing. Charles Man­son’s phrase “creepy crawl­ing” has rarely seemed so apt.

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