Canadian writer / director Sean Durkin won Sundance's "Best Director" prize for his first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is here under Un Certain Regard.
I'd like to first state my ignorance: I had no idea Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen had another sister. But thank god they do, because Elizabeth Olsen is fantastic, and I don't doubt she'll soon eclipse her siblings in talent and attraction.
She plays the eponymous Martha, who we quickly learn is also referred to as "Marcy May" (the Marlene is explained later in the film). That's because she's living with a very strange sect on a farm, somewhere in the north-eastern United States.
The farm, which doubles as both a bizarre de-tox clinic and hippie love-in, is very unnerving. The patriarch of it all is named Patrick, played by a sharply fierce John Hawkes. Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't need to explain why these people are living with Patrick, so it doesn't. Instead, you're offered an intimate (and very disturbing) insight as to what goes on in a micro-community like the one Patrick has founded. People are given a new name, hence Patrick's dubbing of Martha as "Marcy May," and Patrick also takes the virginities of all the new girls that arrive on the farm. The veteran girls prepare them for the occasion, telling them that it is their "special night" with Patrick, and how they would love to relive it over and over again. Patrick taking their virginity is also "part of the cleansing process." As you can imagine, jealousy is everywhere, from both the boys trying to get some action, and the girls trying to receive the "most love" from Patrick.
Yet there's a deep connection established on the farm between its inhabitants. "It's hard adjusting to a new family," a girl says to Martha as she arrives. "But you'll find your role." Obviously this isn't your normal type of family, and the group-sex nights and pillaging of nearby cottages are more than proof of that.
The film opens with Martha escaping the farm and running to town where she calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to be picked up and saved. What follows is Martha's attempt to re-adjust to "normal" life, mixed in with flash-backs and dream sequences of Martha's life as Marcy May. When I say "normal", I mean married life with Lucy and her husband Ted, a white-picket fence couple with high paying jobs and fairly bland personalities. Martha is sickened by it all, but cannot explain to anyone why. It's excrutiating to watch, but is also absolutely riveting. Martha's character has two sides, because the film switches from past to present - and Olsen delivers greatness from both.
The film is also a thriller, and there are moments of the film where the audience will be positively breathless with anxiety. There's a marvelous mixture of madness, murder, and muted mayhem in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which should propel its director to the forefront of filmmakers to watch. He very successfully combines a plausible premise, terrific acting, and a likely-accurate portrayal of sect life. It's a film that will get under your skin and never let go.