Writer/director Sean Durkin’s unsettling “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” now showing at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, explores the dark side of that need for human connection: the giving up of identity and individual will to be included. Those offering that extreme Faustian bargain are most often men, and quite often powerhungry to the point of psychosis: Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson.
Like those infamous figures, Patrick (a pitch-perfect, pitch-black John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”) is a mesmerizing patriarch. This charismatic spider man sits quietly at the center of Durkin’s film, a sinister webmaster luring into his sticky threads those looking for safety, surety … something. Using strategies of isolation, sexual domination, drugs and, above all, fear, Patrick renders his acolytes unable to see beyond the twisted version of reality he provides. Community becomes cult; believer becomes brainwashed.
Durkin explores Patrick and his community primarily through one individual, she of the title’s many names. Played with depth and subtlety by Elizabeth Olsen in her first starring role, this young woman was born Martha, renamed Marcy May by Patrick as part of the identity-stripping necessary for total allegiance, and required to use the phone-alias Marlene to snare more innocents and deflect information seekers.
The film begins with Marcy May running away. We don’t immediately fully understand what she’s fleeing, but as she settles into her attempt to rebuild her connection with the one she runs to, her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson, “The Spirit”), we see through flashbacks her innocent-seeming beginnings with Patrick and the twisted events that unfold during her stay on the isolated farm serving as his base.
Lucy, who helped set Martha on the path to Patrick when she did not take her younger sister in after their parents’ deaths, clearly is not emotionally capable of giving Martha what she needs. Martha clearly is deeply damaged. Patrick clearly refuses to allow anyone the freedom to leave his clutches. A trifecta of trouble, to be sure.
The film builds a powerful sense of foreboding through Martha’s flashbacks to life as Marcy May as she attempts to break free of Patrick’s emotional and mental grip. Brace yourself for an ending that brings past and present together with a jolt, and offers little in the way of relief from tension: Durkin provides no neat, tidy ending.
However, he does provide a powerful, if occasionally heavy-handed, emotional journey through a dystopian world defined by the soul-crushing evil resulting from the ideal of community corrupted.