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
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.