Deliberate in pace and haunting in nature, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a dreamlike character study of a former cultist's reintroduction to society and her attempts to understand her place in the world. Elizabeth Olsen gives a stunning performance in the lead role -- no small feat given that the film frequently moves from the present day to flashbacks and back again. At the helm, first-time filmmaker T. Sean Durkin commands the proceedings with a calculation that continues to impress long after the credits roll. Dread lies in the pores of each frame, promising that no good will come out of the situation.
The film opens with shots of a seemingly normal farm. The first glimpse that something is amiss in this setting is a dinner scene where the men of the house eat before the women, all of whom dine in silence afterwards. Durkin then cuts to the morning, as viewers witness Martha (Olsen) fleeing from the compound to the nearest town, where she's caught at a diner by one of her fellow farmhands. Though she is allowed to leave, the past is never too far behind her, as she finds out when she moves into a summer lake house with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy). Long out of touch, the siblings find it difficult to talk about where Martha has been for last two years -- the memories of which begin to tear Martha apart as her grasp on reality breaks down, cuing the audience in on what was going on at that farm one flashback at a time.
Apart from the similar tense aesthetic the film shares with the previous year's Winter's Bone, the two pictures also feature John Hawkes in two very different, yet subtly sinister performances. Though not quite as striking as his Oscar-nominated performance in Bone, the actor does a fine job at portraying an intimidating force that plagues Martha in the past and the present. As admirable as Hawkes is, the picture belongs to Olsen, who's in nearly every frame of the movie. There's a shell-shocked quality to her in the present, while the flashbacks present a lonely, vulnerable side of the character that both she and the audience have a hard time shaking when those scenes end. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fascinating triumph of indie filmmaking and a smashing debut for Olsen that simply cannot be ignored.