|"Mary-Kate... Ashley... hold still."|
Meet Martha, as she's known to her family. Or, Marcy May, as she's known by the people she lives with. Or, Marlene, as she's known to whomever might call. To be fair, all of the women answer the phone by 'Marlene'. That's how they're directed to. Directed by whom?
His name is Patrick. He runs a farm.
From the film's opening few minutes, it's easy to tell that something is wrong here. We can't ever put our fingers on it, collectively, but we know that something feels wrong. To call it a cult, as some critcs have, would be doing a disservice to the film. It's meant to be ambiguous. Yes, there are cult-ish qualities, so that would be the easy way out. But, it's not like anyone is drinking their Kool-Aid out of a sock or anything. It's more of a group than anything else. Of course, this is a group that is seduced by an older man, driving them to sexual depravity and violent home invasions in the name of nirvana. To enter the group, if you're a woman, you're drugged and made to sleep with Patrick (a magnetic John Hawkes), regardless of your virginity. One can only assume that the new boys are made to rob the homes, as this seems to be something they all do.
Patrick lures the newcomers in with promises of happiness to those who have been abandoned. He fills their heads with things all people should be told - that they're loved, that they're important, that they're needed. But does so only to get under their skin, hooking into their brains and not letting them go. Men like him are sent to prison for a reason. He is a man guilty of countless rapes, countless murders and robberies, but he wouldn't ever suggest it. He might just seem like a loving father figure to a group of lonely kids. That's his power. After raping the unconscious women, he convinces them that they wanted the sex and that it was the best thing that could happen to them. In one scene, after ordering the death of a complete stranger, Patrick explains it was showing him pure love by allowing him to reach God.
Early in the film, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes the farm, only to be followed by one of Patrick's "men". Or, "sons". I guess. Whatever. She's found at a diner and the boy, Watts (Brady Corbet) does his best to convince her to come back. Leaving, thinking she will, Martha instead calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come and pick her up at a bus stop. It has been about two years since they've seen each other or spoken. Naturally, Lucy hurries, thinking Martha's been hurt. She's taken to live with her sister and he husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Moving only three hours from the farm, Martha is taken from rural upstate New York to a lake-side cottage where her past begins to meld with her future, causing alarm and concern from Lucy and Ted. She tells no one what's wrong, but let's everyone know that she needs serious help.
There's a sense of doom that hangs over the entire film. Even in the lighter moments, which there thankfully are, there's a predatory sense that follows the camera. Almost like Martha herself is being followed, which is subtly implied throughout the film. Even in the film's ambiguous and divisive ending, it's hinted. Is she being hunted, or is she being paranoid?
Elizabeth Olsen's performance is the definition of "throwback". I used this word once when describing Sandra Bullock's performance in The Blind Side as a throwback to the way people approached acting in the 40's and 50's. I maintain that I was correct. This performance, however, is a throwback to the golden age. Think 1972, and how sharp the new form of acting was then. Remember when method became a thing, and it was all about quiet torture right behind the eyes. That's Olsen's Martha, Marcy May, and Marlene. She recalls a beauty from the days of Garbo, and the subtle turmoil from the glory days of Pacino. It's a perfect performance, and the stuff that "Best Actress" is made of.