Apart from having one of the most easily forgotten titles in recent recall, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' is a movie without a point. As a demonstration of the sinister nature of hippie commune-cults, the picture conveys a lesson that was already learned-to-death, literally, in the 1960s. It’s all empty foreboding and shuttered import, and you walk out of it shrugging.
And yet the movie gets under your skin; while it’s up on the screen, it casts a dark spell. The writer-director, Sean Durkin, crafting his first feature, weaves together two clashing worlds—the scrubby rural commune and a luxe Connecticut lake house—with an intricacy of tone that’s striking.
Most impressive, though, is Elizabeth Olsen, who plays the film’s haunted protagonist and gives a breakthrough performance of the sort that launched Jennifer Lawrence in last year’s Winter’s Bone.
Olsen—the younger sister of mini-moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, something you’d never, ever guess—plays Martha, an obscurely troubled young woman who dropped off the face of the earth following the death of her mother two years earlier and fetched up in a Catskills commune run by a bony, inscrutable older man named Patrick (John Hawkes, another memorable presence in Winter’s Bone). The commune is a collection of young lost souls, and Patrick rigorously trains them in the ways of the new paradise he’s creating.
Read the full review at Reason.com