Martha Marcy May Marlene new posterMartha Marcy May Marlene is a really powerful independent film which premiered at Sundance and got some real word of mouth. I can’t remember where I first heard about it and I always meant to see it but somehow it disappeared from my horizon and only popped back up again recently when I heard someone mention Elizabeth Olsen‘s very strong performance in the lead role and I knew I had to get my hands on a copy.

This is the story of Martha who we see at the beginning of the film escaping from what appears to be a commune but we learn is a cult led by the charismatic Patrick (played absolutely convincingly by John Hawkes). She has been there for two years, cut off from her family and re-named Marcy May. We don’t know why she has chosen to leave at this point (though we do find out later) and she is picked up by her sister Lucy and taken to the home Lucy shares with her husband Ted. And during the course of the film we learn about what happened to Martha and the impact the events have had on her psychologically.

I loved the structure of the film which has a number of flashbacks to Martha’s life with the cult, but these flow naturally from the current story as triggered memories and I think work really well. I also liked the subtle way the oppressiveness of the cult was set up at the very beginning; the silence, the women waiting until the men have finished eating before they have their own meal, the communal sleeping arrangements, all set the tone for the remainder of the film.

It fascinated me that Martha didn’t open up to Lucy in particular about her experiences. There are a number of points in the film where Lucy and Ted can see that Martha is damaged – her lack of boundaries, her panic attack, her paranoia. It’s never entirely clear whether Patrick and the cult are after her or whether it’s (understandable) self-generated fear, but its pretty obvious that she doesn’t want to talk about where she has been and what has happened to her and that Lucy and Ted are just not able to help her even when they want to.  I also thought the way in which Martha got sucked into Patrick’s orbit was believable and convincing.

I am often irritated by ambiguous endings but I think it really works here, fits in with Martha’s state of mind and gives an edge to what has been an unsettling and disturbing film, one which I can highly recommend.