Martha Marcy May Marlene takes what should be a simple character study and transforms it into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. The very premise is compelling; a lost girl escapes from a cult and struggles to adjust to "normal life."
Where other films with similar themes would simply blame Marcy's personal failings for her susceptibility to the cult, MMMM draws a much more detailed picture. John Hawkes could not be more charismatic as the cult leader. Her relationship with her blood family is tense at best.
That she escapes into the materialistic hell of an oversized lake house seems to feed her peculiar mix of paranoia that the cult's coming after her, and longing for the cult's simplicity. There's a sense that she hasn't just been programmed, she's attempting to make a rational choice between an uncomfortable and unsympathetic blood family and a loving cult family that only makes inappropriate demands of her body in return for bounty.
Even the worst moments with the cult seems less tense that the charged encounters between Marcy and her sister Lucy, played by Sarah Paulsen. They dance around each other like electrons in search of a nucleus, always repellent yet inexplicably attracted. The closer that Marcy gets to opening up, the less sympathy that Lucy has for her.
But while the movie itself is excellent, the real revelation is Elizabeth Olsen (yes, she's one of those Olsens). At first she reminded me of Scarlett Johanssen, back when she had that nebulous "thing" in Lost in Translation and Ghost World. But as the movie went on, I realized that Olsen has something a bit weirder about her, like she's channeling Sissy Spacek. Spacek's early films are a great touchpoint for many of the goings-on in MMMM.
Marcy seems dragged along by an insurmountable current, barely able to control her position in the river. And yet, all the while, Olsen's eyes register everything that happens, and provide the only clues to what Marcy's thinking at any given moment.
The controversial ending makes it clear that, perhaps, we do not understand how Marcy's actually experiencing events and how they've imprinted themselves on her. I loved it, but I'm curious how the rest of you interpret it.
Play along in the comments!