The title of the new release Martha Marcy May Marlene contains within it three names, rather than four, and the distinction between them - which is that between past, present and a possible future - is crucial. Sean Durkin's Sundance prizewinner begins with a young itinerant woman referred to as Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) fleeing her idyllic rural community, and returning to the home of a sister (Sarah Paulson) who refers to her as Martha, some trace element of a former life to which Marcy May finds it, for some reason, hard to adjust. In both locations, however, we sense something's not right, and it takes some while for the viewer and Durkin's film to put a finger on what it is, exactly.
Anyone keeping an eye on the glowing advance word MMMM picked up on the festival circuit last year will already know that, in the first instance, what looked like a community is actually a cult, whose leader (John Hawkes) drugs his female recruits before sexually abusing them; but equally there's something Stepfordy and forbidding about the sister's sunny, spacious home, with its pristine surfaces and uptight English boyfriend on hand. "Why is the house so big?," Martha-Marcy May asks upon her first arrival, a question that might well occur to anyone who's previously been sleeping eight to a room in a pinchfaced Lothario's personal harem.
Durkin shuttles us back and forth between these rhyming waterside retreats, establishing a certain causality: we see why Martha may have wanted to flee the alienating normality of one for the all-embracing alternative of the other, and also - gradually - why Marcy May felt an urgent need to make the return journey. Ideas are set up, and paid off later on. In the present, Martha turns down her sister's offer of a sludgy-looking green healthstore smoothie; only belatedly, within the flashbacks, do we find out why. The structure allows for a heightened anticipation of the threat the heroine faces: with its images of humiliation and abuse freshly imprinted in our minds, the cult, and its outreach program, never seems especially far away. Martha is Martha again now, but we feel she might slip back - or be dragged back - to being Marcy May at any minute.
The film is playing clever games with the boundaries between public and private space - framing Martha within doorways and windows, and rather sensationally sending her to climb into her sister's bed as the latter makes love to her boyfriend - but they are ultimately just games, and MMMM, while vaguely impressive in its formal control, ends up undermined by this element of épater le bourgeois wind-up. Durkin's chosen tactic is that of the contrary teenager who throws open the back doors of a house while we're waiting to be let in the front, only to slam them shut when we finally haul ourselves round to them. Something about the specifics of this cult, endlessly digging for vegetables like a Witness tribute act, never quite convinced me; in the Internet age, surely there are more labour-efficient methods for any wannabe demagogue to impose his will on his victims? Similarly, the gun that shows up in Act Two is the gun that conventionally appears in Act One to be fired in Act Three, yet here we never see it again, as we head towards one of those conclusions that really isn't. (Again: wind-up alert.)
MMMM never lacks for technical sophistries. The stock in the Marcy May strand comes to fade over time like a memory; loud, blaring music plays across scenes of trauma. Yet the point these sophistries are being used to obscure is an obvious, more than faintly juvenile one, rehearsed in a gazillion other indies knocking around Sundance since the release of Ang Lee's The Ice Storm in 1997: that normality can be every bit as oppressive as any alternative. Fragments stay with you, certainly: Olsen, for one, is a sympathetic presence, healthier than her more famous twins, with the possumy softness and kewpie-doll suggestibility of a Maggie Gyllenhaal. I wonder, though, if this isn't a "performance" done chiefly in the editing; that, as in the similarly overrated Black Swan, this disintegration has been done to, rather than by, the lead actress, and whether this numbers the filmmaker among his heroine's apparently numerous oppressors. One also fears the film may cause a certain species of polo neck-wearing coffee-house hipster to start referring to anal sex as "the cleansing", but that may be a discussion for another forum.
Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in selected cinemas from Friday.