Dir. Sean Durkin
(2011, R, 101 min)

I understand the general goal of Martha Marcy May Marlene: to show how difficult it is for a young, indoctrinated cult member to readjust to life in the outside world. At that the film succeeds, but it accomplishes that goal early on, after which I waited for it to dig deeper. Director Sean Durkin establishes a slow, eerie rhythm that may be a little too slow, because while it effectively sets the mood it doesn’t generate enough tension. I waited eagerly for it to kick into gear, but it only has one gear.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, who one day runs away from the isolated commune where she had been known as Marcy May, and sometimes Marlene. The title of the film, with its stream of names not delineated by any punctuation, indicates a jumble of identities crashing together, and the film expresses the same confusion with its narrative structure, which alternates scenes of Martha on the commune with scenes of her at the lake house of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). Durkin makes the decision not to clarify between past and present scenes, creating a disorientation in the audience to match Martha’s; when she opens her eyes at any given moment, she isn’t sure where she is, or when, or if she’s safe, and neither do we.

But Durkin doesn’t do enough with that feeling of psychological confusion. It doesn’t build or pay off; there is only the alternating of scenes. First we’re in the present. Then the past. Back to the present. Back to the past. There are tantalizing details peppered throughout that indicate the return of old dangers – are they real or only in her mind? – but they don’t lead anywhere satisfying. Durkin leaves us hanging.

Nevertheless Olsen is very good at expressing the quiet, internal turmoil of a young woman without a clear sense of place or self. For a while she felt at home on the commune, where she was part of a close-knit family unit until the walls started closing in. But she’s no more at home with her true family – neither with Lucy, with whom she has a contentious history not fully explained by the film, nor Ted, who has a busy career and can’t be bothered to care for a traumatized in-law. Is there a true home for her anywhere? It’s hard to say. Durkin leaves us with questions, but doesn’t give us enough to arrive at answers.