If unremitting festival buzz about writer-director Sean Durkin’s first feature counts as anything, it’s as a casting coup. It is not easy for this critic to proclaim the instant stardom that awaits Elizabeth Olsen, erstwhile undiscovered Mary-Kate-and-Ashley kin, as reward for her beguiling turn in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” If you think you feel uncomfortable trying to say this movie’s title aloud, try publicly admitting sexual attraction to the younger sister of the baby on “Full House.”
But such is the way of the psychological thriller, wherein the dreamy and the nightmarish become entwined. Durkin’s title lists the many names by which Olsen’s character is known, and salutes her tantalizing way of staying unknowable. Early indications suggest she’s a chronic runaway, and include lucid glimpses of places from which she might very reasonably want to be gone. Yet there is also the matter of her steadfast presence.
Having fled a communal Catskills farm for a posh Connecticut lake house, Martha or whoever she is now must decide which lifestyle she prefers. At the latter, she has an estranged uptight older sister (Sarah Paulson) and a smugly moneyed brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy); at the former, a rangy ingratiating patriarch (John Hawkes) who helps his adopted pubescents channel old hurts into handgun skills, enlists them for petty theft or worse as needed, and oversees their orgies with proprietary pride. At the lake, the sterility of bourgeois consumerism is palpable in empathy-challenged big sis not yet having managed to get pregnant; on the farm, even the roofies apparently are herbal and organic.
Toggling between these environments, Durkin hangs himself up on pseudo-revelatory comparisons between them. He gets far enough to reveal how Martha’s non-assimilation prompts paranoia and a breakdown, but then he seems to get stuck, trapped by the perpetual motion of his own pendulous structure. The movie proceeds assuredly onward, as if an earnest consideration of a damaged youngster’s glib joke: Which is worse, the Manson family or my own? One can imagine Durkin strutting around the festival circuit congratulating himself for having made a film about a cult in which no one ever says the word cult.
Gradually we do get the picture of a willful yet vulnerable young woman, plainly tormented, possibly a tease, and plausibly the ideal fetish object for a certain kind of creep. (On that front, perhaps one important and redeeming difference between a cult leader and a movie critic is that at least the latter has no social influence.) “She’s just a picture,” Hawkes sings to and about her, midway through the movie, and her extraordinary nonverbal reaction to that assessment seems like the very stuff cinema was invented for.
Olsen is verbally striking too, and the dissonance between her alto speaking voice and her youthful appearance seems elemental to the overall tension. Would this movie even be anything without her? Would admitting to her allure at least feel better than admitting that Hawkes, so terrific in last year’s “Winter’s Bone,” and strong here too, still might be digging himself into rut of scrawny, woodsy menace?
Fashionably oblique, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” means mostly to be unsettling. And it is, in an aesthetically precious way. There’s a difference between really valuing restraint and merely wanting attention for it. Just as there’s a difference between leaving things unsaid and leaving them undecided. Durkin may one day become a more seasoned dramatist, but only if his shrewdly chosen collaborators call him on his shortcomings. Here, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ frequent shallowness of focus, perhaps intended to suggest subjective immediacy, more directly corresponds to shallowness of material. Lipes mutes several scenes with a layer of matte-finish filtration, but the effect is as prettified as if it were a gloss.
In retrospect it’s no surprise that Durkin’s ending, a lengthy and handsomely choreographed single take, seems at once like a coup de grace and a cop out. What’s best about it is what’s best, and truest, about the whole movie: the primacy of Olsen’s great face.