Sean Durkin’s captivating debut opens on a sun-dappled farm, a collection of young adults performing odd jobs and a toddler chasing a ball.
Chickens cluck, wood gets chopped. Only this pastoral idyll is contaminated by a spare, insistent score, its peculiar foreboding lent weight when we see a group of women waiting patiently while the menfolk eat first.
The man at the head of the table is watchful and wordless. Winner of the Directing Award at Sundance 2011, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a horror film shorn of cheap techniques and juvenile concerns, playing as straight drama.
The ambiguous, dreamlike tale of lost child-woman Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, excellent) fleeing a commune led by disarming, passive-aggressive, Charles Manson-like Patrick (Winter’s Bone Oscar-nominee John Hawkes, equally excellent), it teases insidious menace from subtle sound design and carefully framed, protracted shots.
There’s more than a hint of early Polanski in Durkin’s controlled mastery of mood, with the mystery and paranoia deepened by a fractured narrative, shallow-focus photography and a determined absence of establishing shots.
Only in the mid-section does the precision falter, the timeline a little too choppy and not all of the vignettes adding information. But the third act comes on strong, throbbing with tension and tantalisingly open to interpretations. Martha Marcy May Marlene further impresses by chronicling Martha’s attempts to reintegrate with family and society.
Flip-flopping between her time in the upstate New York compound and her recovery in Connecticut at the spacious lakeside home of her elder sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy), it deftly suggests that a life of ‘normalcy’ is every bit as restrictive and dysfunctional.
Whether spouting platitudes (“A good night’s sleep and you’ll be as good as new”; “You have to eat something…”) or enquiring about their guest’s career plans, this uptight couple evidence staid, instilled values and a desire to condition Martha that’s not dissimilar to Patrick’s renaming her as Marcy May.
At its core, Durkin’s film is about losing not just your sanity but also your identity – a terrifying prospect, more so because it’s so very recognisable.
Unfortunately, Blu-ray featurettes were unavailable at press time but both the BD and DVD come with Durkin’s 2010 short Mary Last Seen, a prequel of sorts that showcases the writer/director’s composed style in prototype form.