(Sean Durkin, 2011)
Is this an art house drama with elements of a horror film, or a horror film framed within the borders of an art house drama?
Whatever else it may be, Durkin's film is a tremendous exercise in subtle, slow burn dread. Sliding beautifully back and forth between two time frames, Martha Marcy May Marlene begins when Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) steals out of a farmhouse in the Catskills at dawn, plainly terrified of those she is leaving behind. She calls her estranged older sister (Sarah Paulson), who collects her and brings her to the lakeside country house where she and her architect husband (Hugh Dancy) spend weekends and holidays. Over the next few days they will be baffled, frightened and angered by her bizarre behaviour while she tries to cope with her memories of her life and slow brainwashing as part of Patrick's (John Hawkes) cult on the farm. Then there is also her fear that Patrick and his people will track her down. And given her knowledge of their nocturnal invasions of isolated country houses, that is not a pleasant prospect.
Based around an astonishing performance from Olsen, Durkin's film is a terrifically well-modulated piece of work. While the tension seldom lets up from the opening moments, when the ambient noise on the soundtrack informs us correctly that this will be an ambiguous, disturbing experience, individual scenes contain some fine black comedy and character work. Durkin's time structure allows him to play scenes and even passages off against one another to occasionally superb effect.
If he seems to agree - to some extent - with Martha's speech to her brother-in-law, dryly observing the conspicuous wealth on display in their cathedral of a house and criticising it as the "wrong" way to live, his telling use of detail would effectively bury Patrick's "family" if the narrative didn't make it impossible to see them as anything other than horrendously twisted already. Hawkes plays Patrick as a twinkly, charismatic, folksy preacher, with a hint of violence in the inner steel seen only a few times - memorably - in his interaction with them. He is magnetic throughout, whether lecturing, manipulating, or singing a Jackson C Frank song with a guitar on his knee.
Poulson and --- almost match him, sketching the nuances of the complex web of relations -formed of tension, politeness, curiosity and regret - in their own house nicely.
But really this is Durkin's film, and he does an incredible job, managing to suggest much of the unease coursing through the narrative veins through his compositions and cutting, without ever compromising on the visually poetic images. Plenty of negative space dominates the framing, isolating Martha against sky or wall, just as she is generally isolated by the story and her inability to open up to others. Durkin largely portrays both Patricks farm and Martha's Sisters house as beautiful idylls where people work simply, surrounded by nature, without any bad behaviour or negativity. These scenes can be dull, but here Durkin makes the countryside appear honeyed, lovely. The late reveal changes the complexity of that entire thread and indeed, of the film, and these isolated houses appear terribly vulnerable and even a little sinister.
This may in fact be the film's most impressive quality. Martha Marcy May Marlene is ambiguous throughout. Ambiguous in the best way; it allows you to decide for yourself. The abrupt, open ending is the most obvious example of this, and it means that it doesn't matter if this film is an art house drama or a horror film; it is simply stunning.