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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elizabeth Olsen made her big debut as frazzled cult survivor Martha Marcy May Marlene

Illustration for article titled Elizabeth Olsen made her big debut as frazzled cult survivor Martha Marcy May Marlene
Screenshot: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin both have new movies coming out, so we’re looking back on other projects released by their production company, Borderline Films.


Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” The eponymous protagonist of Martha Marcy May Marlene, played by Elizabeth Olsen, asks this of her older sister following some years apart. Martha is staying with Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), in their plush Connecticut lake house after having made a surreptitious, early-morning escape from another secluded home, a communal farmhouse in the Catskills. But Sean Durkin’s first (and, prior to the upcoming release of The Nest, only) feature is less about memories versus dreams or fact versus fiction than the way traumatic experiences from one’s past can assert themselves in the present.

The film’s neat structure reiterates this idea, often bluntly, by visually blending Martha’s memories of her time upstate with her current stay in Connecticut: She jumps off her brother-in-law’s boat and lands in a creek among splashing members of the commune. She carries a glass of water from her sister’s spotless stainless steel kitchen into a shadowed, unfinished room on the farm. Handfuls of seconds can pass in a new scene before it’s clear just when and where Martha is. Besides being Olsen’s auspicious debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene is perhaps most notable for these formal choices (Durkin would win the Directing Award at Sundance that year), which blur the line between what was and what now is.

Beginning with Martha’s addled call to her sister on a pay phone outside of a diner, we see the effects of her trauma before the trauma itself, creating a palpable sense of foreboding. One morning she pisses herself awake. One night she lies down in Lucy and Ted’s bed while they’re having sex. As Martha’s behavior grows increasingly troubling, the flashbacks to her life in the commune also become more and more disturbing. (The word “cult” did not appear anywhere in Durkin’s script.) The group’s leader, Patrick, is played by John Hawkes, who—one year after Winter’s Boneportrays another charismatic but dangerous man opposite an ingenue in her breakout role. Hawkes’ performance, like the film as a whole, is as striking for what it avoids as for what it contains. The cliché of the wild-eyed, manipulative Svengali is nowhere to be seen here; in its place is a man who smiles as easily as he closes a hand around a woman’s neck.

Martha cannot yet talk about what happened to her, but often parrots Patrick’s language to Lucy. “Why is the house so big?” she asks when she first sees the lake property. The film hints at Martha and Lucy’s childhood—a dead mother, a mean aunt—without becoming didactic about how an unstable upbringing might eventually lead one sister to embrace the security that an architect husband and wild amounts of money afford and the other to join a cult. The world of the commune is specific and detailed—one can almost smell the body odor in the room where everyone sleeps—while its overriding ideology remains vague, its tenets tacit. Upon her arrival at the idyllic farm, Martha is told that it’s as much hers as theirs. She’s later encouraged to let her guard down in order to more fully become a part of the group. It results in a kind of porousness, made literal when Patrick gives her a new name and when the cult members enter nearby residences at night to burgle them. (That her sister’s is the kind they would rob does not need to be said.) The self is as permeable as a house, the film says. You have to be careful who you let in.

Availability: Martha Marcy May Marlene is currently streaming on HBO Max and DirectTV. It is also available to rental or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, Redbox, and VUDU.