Talk about your cold opens. Martha Marcy May Marlene throws its audience right into the thick of things, with nary a credit, much less a title card, by way of prologue: A young woman tiptoes through a house crowded with sleeping bodies before dashing off into the nearby woods; her housemates give chase. Questions of identity (as in the sliding alliterative registry of the film’s title) and intentionality are embedded in the very first line of dialogue hollered after the fleeing girl by an anonymous off-screen voice: “Marcy May! Where you going?” Thereafter, dislocation will be writer-director Sean Durkin’s principal theme, as well as one of his primary techniques, in the service of a nonlinear narrative suturing together past and present with disorienting match cuts that constantly force viewers to retake their spatiotemporal bearings. The vertiginous quality of these cuts is never rendered more forcefully than in the one between Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) jumping off a pier into a serene lake and a shot of her plunging past craggy outcroppings into waters frothing with other cult members.
Movies about cults tend to overplay their hands, ascribing the most patent psychological impulses to prospective cult members, and playing up the ravening, Svengali-like charisma of the cult’s leader. That emphasis on crazy-eyed creep factor holds true from Helter Skelter‘s Charlie Manson (Steve Railsback) to Powers Boothe as Jim Jones in Guyana Tragedy. To his credit, Durkin prefers to merely suggest, sketching out motivation more effectively through the subtle ontology of long takes and widescreen framing than any pop Freudian complex-mongering or slavering soliloquy could ever hope to convey. The disjunction between what Patrick’s (John Hawkes) little congregation professes and what they’re really doing materializes slowly; then again, much the same could be said about Martha’s sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes her in after her escape and seems to want only what’s best for her. Ultimately, though, systems of denial and control hem Martha in on both sides.
Performances likewise help to heighten the film’s suggestiveness. Olsen is particularly good at expressing a kind of affectless indecipherability that shines through in her dinner-table argument with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). We can’t ever really be sure whether Martha actually believes the agit-prop palaver she’s declaiming or just uses it to jab at the cracks appearing in the façade of Lucy and Ted’s relationship. Paulson effortlessly switches registers between wounded pride and wounding condescension. It’s a shame that Hawkes doesn’t have all that much screen time in what amounts to a glorified cameo as Patrick, but he infuses the grass-roots guru with a salt-of-the-earth approachability as well as an underlying menace. There’s never one definitive moment when what Melville might call his unreasoning mask slips entirely aside; we can only infer his potential for violence from certain fraught scenes. Until near the end of the film, that is, when the group’s penchant for home invasion comes to light.
The “What just happened?” ending might come across like a routine bid for open-ended profundity were it not entirely in keeping with the haze of uncertainty hovering over Martha Marcy May Marlene. The reality or delusional nature of its events is left entirely open. In the end, Durkin seems less interested in providing answers and resolutions than intent on using genre trappings and the formal building blocks of film style to suggest an atmosphere of anxiety.
Sean Durkin and DP Jody Lee Lipes were obviously after a very specific look for Martha Marcy May Marlene: filling the Scope frame with a blandly neutral color palette, and playing up precisely those crushed blacks and smeary, blown highlights usually considered the bane of glossy professional cinematography, results in a low-key, denatured look that permits the film's temporal shifts to flow seamlessly into one another. Fox's 1080p Blu-ray transfer captures this imagery with exquisite precision. The Master Audio 5.1 track subtly spreads ambient nature sounds like forest noises and splashing water around the peripheral tracks, while bringing front and center atonal alarums that are used with increasing frequency (and to great effect) to signal Martha's growing paranoia and anxiety. Incidental music occurs with comparative infrequency, the significant exception being "Marcy's Song," a folksy bit of seduction performed by John Hawkes's Patrick, the cult leader.
Mary Last Seen, a companion piece that Durkin and a skeleton crew (including actor Brady Corbet) put together during a lull in preproduction on Martha Marcy May Marlene, fills in some of the cult's recruitment tactics, especially sexual manipulation and steady segregation from friends and family. There's an in-studio music video for "Marcy's Song." Otherwise, the bulk of the extras—a puff profile of Elizabeth Olsen, a brief discussion of narrative dynamics, some thoughts from a cult expert—look to have been filmed during a single EPK session, sliced up into bite-sized portions, and padded with relevant clips. They're mildly informative ephemera at best.
One of the most promising domestic debuts in recent memory, Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene gets an excellent Blu-ray transfer, offset by an underwhelming smattering of extras.