By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a curious tale of multiple identity.
Unlike “The Three Faces of Eve” or “Sybil,” in which the protagonists’ different personalities came from within, the young woman — brilliantly played by Elizabeth Olsen — in Sean Durkin’s impressive debut film, lets her identity be defined by others.
The film begins with Olsen sneaking out of a commune-like settlement in upstate New York (these details are filled in later).
She seems frantic, unmoored and when she asks her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up, you just hope she gets there soon.
The sisters — again this is revealed, not immediately spelled out — aren’t that close, and Lucy’s suggestion that Martha (her given name) stay with her and her priggish husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), is more akin to the kindness of near strangers than the loving bonds of kin.
The rest of the film flashes back and forth between the farm she fled and Lucy’s “ready-for-my-“Veranda”-spread lake house and Martha’s time with the hippie-manque group led by the charismatic and twisted Patrick (John Hawkes).
Uh-oh, you think. Charlie Manson time. Or maybe Jim Jones. But Patrick’s is a more subtle and, in its way, more insidious influence.
Marcy May is the name he gives Martha once she’s properly, um, initiated into the group (it, of course, sexual and very much droit de seigneur).
The more we learn about the commune, the creepier it gets. Mealtimes mean women cook, men eat first and women clean up. And — do I even have to say it? — are sexually available at the men’s whim. And —do I have to say this either? — are willing. If that’s how Patrick says it should be, then…
At the same time, the more we experience Lucy and Ted’s picture-perfect life, the squarer it seems. Or perhaps, more rigid. At least they’re well intentioned, whereas Patrick and his “family” have the radiant self-righteous that can evolve when the commune edges into cult.
Much of the film’s audaciousness stems from Durkin’s astute direction and instinct for the telling detail. One example: Patrick always renames his new female acolytes; it’s part of the seduction/rape ritual.
Another: “Marlene” is the name all the women use if someone phones the commune. It’s part giggly sorority prank, part paranoid mystique created by Patrick’s manipulative charisma.
And I can’t imagine a better cast. Paulson and Dancy give texture to what might be tossed off as simplistic materialists.
Hawkes, whose scary-mountain-man performance in last year’s “Winter Bone” earned him a best supporting actor nomination, nails that seductive faux sensitivity and laid-back command such Messianic leaders share. Even as you shake your head at his tried-and-true tricks (his grizzled beard suggests he’s been doing this for a while), you can see why it works.
However, Olsen, known in some circles as the younger sibling of a certain powerful twin set, holds the film together. She’s so compelling, so open; her skin seems translucent.
Everything registers with her, even, occasionally, an unsettling opaqueness. Watching her add layer after layer to Martha/Marcy May/Marlene is riveting. We’re watching a victim (or so we supposed..) become a predator (or maybe not? Maybe she’s a victim of greater forces?).
And while we fear for her, we’re wary of her, too. She’s the random bit of unpredictable chaos that seeps through the cracks.
That gives us pause without us not quite knowing why.
Sadly, she doesn’t seem to know why either.