Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) gets up early today, and quietly leaves the farmhouse compound she has been living in for the past two years, escaping into the surrounding forest - but she has been spotted. She thinks she can get away without being caught, and hides as her fellow cult members scour the woods for her, yet once she reaches a small town nearby and sits in a diner, finally eating what she has chosen for herself, one of the menfolk arrives and slides into the booth across from her. But he isn't here to take her back, it's worse than that...
Lumbered with one of the most awkward names in movie history, or at least the hardest to remember - yes, can I have a ticket for Mary Maisie, er, Margaret... Transformers 3, please - here was a film which appeared from apparently nowhere to become one of the most talked about of its year. With its writer and director Sean Durkin having nothing but a couple of shorts to his name, picking a star who would be known only for being the younger sister of the Olsen twins, and basing its approach around the not exactly audience friendly style of jumping from one time frame to another, it was not the most obvious effort to gather a collection of fans who thought it was one of the best they'd seen for a while.
In truth, that blank surface over gradually revealed, sinister depths possibly made this far harder work to get on with than was necessary, especially when it was not as surprising as it thought it was, but the results were a story which got under the skin in a way its obvious influence did for generations. After the mass murder perpretrated by Charles Manson's "Family" in 1969, there were signicant waves made across pop culture: for a start, hippies were no longer able to be seen in quite the same peace and love promoting light, and their communes could not help but be viewed as breeding grounds for brainwashing and worse. Actually, most of them were idealistic rather than murderous, but for the rest of the seventies the character of the evil hippy was quite prevalent in a number of forms and media.
So you could regard Martha Marcy May Marlene as a latecomer to the table, though there were still cults existing in America, among other places, which would occasionally make the headlines when their behaviour became a threat, either to themselves or others. Yet it was Manson who Durkin was most harking back to in the persona of Patrick (a quietly disturbing John Hawkes), who acts much as that psychopath did, controlling his harem of "wives" with obligatory sex, and keeping the men around for the promise of relations with them, all of them seduced into Patrick's twisted message of self-fulfilment when what he most wants is far more selfish - not their money, as some cults insist on, but their adoration and compliance. It's this lust for power that breeds the suffocating paranoia spreading from the first five minutes.
It's not only Martha's life with Patrick we concentrate on, there is another half to her story, and that's where we pick up in the present. She calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is at her holiday home a few hours away with her uptight Brit husband Ted (Hugh Dancy); Lucy comes to get her, and pussyfooting around the big question of where the hell she's been all this time she puts up with Martha's obviously disturbed behaviour. The girl patently is unable to open up about what has happened, and its implied that she never ever will as this abusive relationship she has endured with patience and stoicism has scarred her emotionally to such an extent that she will be constantly looking over her shoulder even if the threat has passed. The fact that we leave the story as uncertain as she is about whether Martha is safe or in grave danger made it stick uncomfortably in the mind, and not everyone will be satisfied with that, but for a study of what poisonous personalities can do to the innocent and vulnerable, the intimidatiing atmosphere was all too convincing. Music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.