At the start of Martha Marcy May Marlene, a woman in her early twenties (Elizabeth Olsen) living in some sort of commune makes a break for the woods. One of the men she lives with (Brady Corbet) tracks her down, then lets her go. For a brief stretch, it’s unclear whether the sister (Sarah Paulson) who retrieves her is part of the cult herself.
One of the more provocative aspects of Martha Marcy May Marlene—easily the most gripping, confident debut feature of the year—is its suggestion that the way family members educate each other can be as strange as what cults do to their members. On a visit to Chicago in August, writer-director Sean Durkin, 29, stopped short of endorsing that reading, but said he now sees cult mentalities everywhere. “Sports teams, people who follow sports teams, religion, churches, work—any company I find that people just generally have a need to belong to something larger than themselves,” he says. “And each group brings out a slightly different side of you.”
That’s where the title comes in. Martha is what the protagonist is called when she arrives at the upstate New York compound, where she’s renamed Marcy May. Keeping the viewer as disoriented as its heroine, the film moves fluidly between flashbacks to her initiation and the present, when she attempts to self-deprogram without telling her family or, perhaps, quite realizing what has happened to her.
“There really isn’t much rescuing when you don’t really know what you’re involved in,” explains Olsen, sitting beside her director on a couch at the Elysian Hotel. “Even when she leaves, she doesn’t really know what she was involved in. I don’t think the word cult came up once in a possible thought.”
Durkin elaborates. “I could relate it to people who have drug problems, alcohol problems, domestic-abuse situations, where people are lying to themselves about what state they’re in and what they need,” he says. “And to take that further, how often families know that people need help and need interventions and don’t do anything. Balancing both of those sides—that became a central part of understanding the process of how everyone would react.”
Dubbed an instant star at Sundance, Olsen gives a volatile, provocatively blank performance. There’s no need to mention the 22-year-old actor in the same breath as her older sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley. At NYU, she made her way on the New York stage and spent a semester studying at the Moscow Art Theatre School. “I had no problem thinking that, when I graduated college, if I had a hard time meeting people, I thought maybe I’d meet agents through them when I graduated, because I’d feel capable of holding my own,” she says. “But it just never needed to happen that way.”
At NYU, Durkin formed a production company, Borderline, with classmates Josh Mond and Antonio Campos; the latter’s Afterschool was one of 2008’s more arresting debuts. The idea was that the three filmmakers would assist each other’s projects.
“The first thing that happened was Antonio started writing Afterschool, and Josh and I would go out and get music videos or small commercials or anything to pay the bills,” Durkin explains. “We would share the money evenly so that Antonio could write. And then we’d focus on producing that. When editing on Afterschool was done, we switched over.”
He laughs. “We’re totally a cult,” he says. “I dunno, maybe.”
Martha Marcy May Marlene opens Friday 28.