Martha Marcy May Marlene

28 March 2012 | 7:00 am | Ian Barr

It's surprising that the subject of cults – particularly scary backwoods ones – hasn't been mined onscreen more often, considering their potential dramatic and psychological heft. Martha Marcy May Marlene more than fills the gap, albeit in a different way than expected. Here we follow a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, sibling of Mary-Kate & Ashley) who's been inducted into one, but we begin with her escaping; subsequently jumping back and forth in time between her hazy, bleached-out memories of her draining experiences and her present-day paranoia as she takes refuge in her bourgeois sister's holiday home.

It's nothing new for films to withhold or elide key bits of information about plot and characters and leave audiences to fill in the blanks, but there's nothing lazy about the way first-time writer/director Sean Durkin lets things play out here. Olsen's Martha remains something of a cipher; we get few details about her past prior to her induction. But that ambiguity stresses her very lack of self-definition and identity, the exact qualities that make her a prime target for the power exercised over her and others by leader (John Hawkes, menacing, magnetic blah blah blah). It's up to Olsen to intimate backstory through performative nuance, and she proves more than up to the task, in a justly-lauded breakthrough performance.

As the past and present start to merge in MMMM, the film becomes less about the specific drama around cults and the more about the universal dilemma of whether it's better to feel a false sense of belonging or unmoored in the world you're supposed to belong to. That neither option seems preferable by the time the credits roll is what gives this remarkable film such a chilling punch.