When we meet Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), she has just escaped a commune she had been living at for two years. She looks lost at this little shopping plaza and the phone call she makes to her sister sounds like it could be under duress. Martha has never gotten along with Lucy (Sarah Paulson), which makes asking to stay with her and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their new vacation home all the more complicated.
Patrick (John Hawkes) invites these women to his farm where he preaches the benefits of communal living and getting back to basics. Patrick is knowledgeable he plays the guitar and charming when he wants to be. He convinces her that she has infinitely more value on the farm. He convinces Elizabeth that instead of the wandering spirit she believed herself to be, she is a teacher and a leader.
Of course the payment comes later, it always does. The benefits of communal living are swiftly replaced with the total awareness fear brings to living. With that, Patrick's demeanor also shifts quickly and terrifyingly. John Hawkes has always been known as a character actor, but his last two performances (including the superb Winter's Bone) have put him in an upper echelon of fearsome actors.
Following her time at the farm, Martha can't assimilate back into life. Living in a commune has soured her on wealth and extravagance. Ted's job allows he and Lucy to have very nice things and it puts them at odds with helping Martha get out of her own mind. With Martha seemingly raging against the world, her return to the Catskills seems inevitable.
Martha Marcy May Marlene blends dream with reality in a way that few films can. The editing elegantly moves from her time at the farm, to her escape and back and forth and everywhere in between. Scenes where Martha spends time at Lucy and Ted's vacation home lull her and the viewer into a false sense of security. Here she is safe, until Martha loses the ability to separate dreams from reality and haunting memories of her past keep resurfacing.
Elizabeth Olsen shines in her first big role, an important note given how dependent MMMM is on her performance. A sustained portrayal of fear and paranoia can often become laughable if done incorrectly, but Olsen makes it credible. Every window she passes and every sound she hears in the house is a tribute to the lasting fear she lives with and never knowing when they may come for her again.