Movies successfully built on mood are an astonishing high-wire act, requiring not just a remarkable consistency in every scene, but for the audience to immerse themselves in that mood as well. Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, his first film, accomplishes this so well that it's easy to overlook its more underdeveloped areas, which emerge as the film sinks deeper into a story with no intention of resolving in a conventional way. But even in a film that isn't quite as full as it needs to be, Durkin and especially his star Elizabeth Olsen make an indelible impression, plunging the audience into a world of their creation that's as well-crafted as it is impossible to forget.
We first meet Olsen as Marcy May, a young girl living on a communal farm in upstate New York, where the women cook dinner and wait patiently for the men to eat before feeding themselves, where the women share all their clothes and take turns raising each others' children. One morning she runs away, and after a tense encounter with another boy from the farm (Brady Corbet) in a diner she makes a phone call to her sister, who calls her Martha and whisks her away to a luxurious Connecticut lake house. Martha is an unnerving, almost spectral presence in the corners of the house, all while her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulon) and Lucy's new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) encourage her to rejoin "normal" life, an impossible task especially given that Martha is constantly immersed in memories of her past life.
Though the rural farm and posh lakehouse are strikingly different locations, Durkin's camera and muted, dusky color palette make them the same, so that Martha jumps into the lake off their private dock and in the next shot is suddenly in a swimming hole surrounded by the other members of her cult. She curls up alone in a king-size bed at Lucy's house and then is suddenly sleeping on a mattress on the farmhouse floor, or having sex with one boy while, all around her, everyone else is doing the same. Olsen's marvelously expressive, enormous face says so much without even blinking, but Durkin deftly fills in the rest, employing snail-slow zooms to provide a constant sense of dread, or putting Olsen in the middle of an enormous frame, a small, pale figure left alone in a world she no longer understands at all.
But despite Durkin's efforts to link Martha's old world and her new, even stranger one, they are wildly imbalanced; Paulson and Olsen create an elegant sisterly rapport, but Dancy's character is underutilized, and the lakehouse becomes a dull yuppie existence that anyone would scramble to escape. Martha's life at the commune, though often teeming with violence and intimidation, is also vibrant, suffused with that sense of purpose and blind optimism that it probably takes to get a cult going to begin with. The deck is stacked from the beginning, really, thanks to the magnetic presence of John Hawkes, who plays the feral and subtly terrifying group leader Patrick with an intensity that the film sometimes slows down to appreciate. The film is always Martha's, and Olsen holds her own impressively against the veteran Hawkes, but his strong presence makes the parts of the film without him feel like a missed opportunity.
Even if Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't burrow into its lead character and her internal conflict quite as deeply as it could have, its sustained tension and subtle examination of uniquely female struggles give it real staying power. See it for Olsen's breakthrough performance and Durkin's keen cinematic eye, and be surprised by how a movie this delicate and small can linger.