A Case of Mistaken Identity

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

A fog of dreams and delusions, light and dark, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a movie to go mad by. It is a decidedly anti-narrative mood piece, frustrating to navigate and, like the title, easy to trip up on. The first viewing, the pure experience, is hazy and tantalizing, and the second viewing will clarify some of your confusions (but not all) while still preserving the mystery of this very strange little movie.

In the next few months, prepare to hear the name Elizabeth Olsen get tossed around a lot. She plays Martha, Marcy May and Marlene in this film. These are aliases for the same person and yet, in a sense, they are three different women or, at least, three different personas of the same woman. Like I said, this film is tricky to parse.

Martha (Olsen) is a young woman, probably in her early twenties, headstrong and not easily rattled. In the film’s opening scenes, she escapes from a farmhouse that seems to exist somewhere in Upstate New York and somewhere outside of time. But as we learn, this is present day. She is picked up by her estranged, harpy sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) at a bus stop. Martha elides any questions about her whereabouts for the last two years.

Sarah brings Martha to her vacation home in Connecticut, where Martha meets her brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy), a well-to-do architect whose values conflict with Martha’s. Lucy, too, has turned into some kind of overprotective, money-grubbing shrew. Martha and Lucy are sisters perpetually on edge, and their sparring is fascinating to watch.

Durkin slowly reveals what happened to Martha in carefully edited flashbacks in the form of dreams and memories. She was in a cult run by Patrick (John Hawkes), an unctuous, scraggly man who tells Martha upon first meeting, with a sweet smile, “You look like a Marcy May.” The name sticks.

As the backstory unfolds, Martha finds herself to be “a teacher and a leader,” a mantra that the manipulative Patrick constantly implants in her head. The house is filled with girls that look like Martha, and young horny men in white t-shirts. Patrick is using the women for only one special purpose. Do I need to spell it out?

The dreamlike textures of this film recall Peter Weir’s equally enigmatic “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or Robert Altman’s swan dive into doppelganger-land, “3 Women.” And more recently, “Martha” shares its fetish for bad childrearing with the Greek film “Dogtooth.” These films are all sisters from the same planet.

Hawkes harks back to the rural smarm he played in last year’s “Winter’s Bone,” embodying a Charles Manson-meets-Jim Jones kind of figure with freakish intensity. There is always psychosexual creepiness peeking beneath the closed door of this film’s narrative and Hawkes’s presence looms in every shot.

The plainness of Olsen’s face, with her small features and pinched, stoic expression, gives Martha believability. Much of the haunted world of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is tres chic, with its perfectly coiffed female doppelgangers and languid images of chiaroscuro, but Martha resembles someone we may already know or will meet someday.

Olsen, at 22 years old and only in her second film, acts the hell out of this movie. She is taciturn when she needs to be, hysterical in appropriate measure and, like the film, is always on the verge of coming unhinged. In a phone interview, she says that, thanks to Sean Durkin’s careful direction, “I felt confident to be put in situations that were physically and emotionally vulnerable.”

Given this touchy material, which involves trauma, sexual abuse and mind control at the hands of a cult, Olsen says, “There were no tricks played onset. We always checked in with each other to make sure that we were doing okay. We worked very delicately and specifically.”

As I suspected, “Martha” reflects a pedigree of auteur American films like “3 Women” — which “Martha” shares its opening music cues with, a slow-building, off-key orchestral swell — and “Rosemary’s Baby,” which are all about paranoia and identity crises. “I want people to have a new cinematic experience. More like American ’70s films like Robert Altman or Roman Polanski. For modern audiences, there’s just nothing like it,” Olsen says. “You don’t always have to have the answers to everything you see.”

And indeed, Durkin’s screenplay offers little in the way of answers. More than plot arcs, this film is about narrative and formal restraint: the slow dissolve, a tracking shot, that shock cut. In one scene, Martha literally walks into her memory, as a room in Lucy’s house fades into a room from the cult compound, where secrets are revealed and darkness descends.

When Martha asks her sister, “How far are we from yesterday?” we understand that she will always be on the run, and will always be hiding in the shadows waiting for the men in plain white Ts. The anti-ending is maddening, but Olsen explains it well: “(Durkin) says that the questions people have at the end of the film hopefully align with Martha’s questions at that moment,” she says. “The movie begins and ends in transition. In film, we are not used to that.”

While Olsen might be biased, writer/director Sean Durkin’s tantalizing, deeply disturbing (and disturbed) “Martha” is one of the year’s most modestly scaled films, with a fully realized performance in the center of its cold, cold heart.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.