There are few movies that fill me with so much discomfort that I can’t wait to leave the theater, even while I’m watching them. Martha Marcy May Marlene, which premiered yesterday at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, is one of those films, a portrait of cult brainwashing that is so discomfiting, I would have walked out if I wasn’t so transfixed by the tremendous filmmaking on display.

Hit the jump for some more thoughts on the film, including a video blog I recorded with over half a dozen movie writers.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a woman who escapes from a cult in rural New York and tries to reintegrate into a normal life with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Lucy brings Martha to her Connecticut vacation home, where she and her husband Adam (Hugh Dancy) are trying to enjoy a few days away from their regular lives in the city. Martha constantly experiences chilling flashbacks and begins to lose her grip on reality. As the days pass and Martha’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, it becomes clear that her time away from home may have had far more effects on her than initially believed.

First-time director Sean Durkin eschews any fancy filmmaking tricks for his powerful directorial debut. Many of the scenes play out in long, tense takes and even much of the dialogue often takes place in a single shot. Durkin lets us dwell in those interstitial moments, those subtle communications that take place in between the words we say to each other. Scenes at the cult play out so matter-of-factly that their calmness becomes grotesque and uncomfortable. It is a terrible feeling to see fellow humans completely disconnected from the social norms that guide us all. Martha Marcy May Marlene gives us a window into what humanity is capable of when it subverts its built-in sense of right and wrong in pursuit of a supposed greater good.

John Hawkes turns in a subtle, terrifying performance as cult-leader Patrick. Rather than play him with any sort of grandiosity, Hawkes comes off as a gentle, charismatic, understanding soul, who Martha quickly falls for. Speaking of Martha, as far as I’m concerned, Olsen’s performance here is a tour de force, full of depth and complexity. Olsen’s Martha displays deep insecurity, painful ambivalence, and a stunning amorality that is haunting to see in a fellow human being.

Despite the ways the film plays with Martha’s sense of time, Durkin still manages to escalate the tension throughout, creating a palpable build-up that leads to a brilliant and unsettling conclusion. As the credits rolled, I was simultaneously floored by the power of the film, but also relieved that it was finally over. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an intense and unforgettable directorial debut. I just don’t know if I’ll ever want to see it again.

Below is an incredibly unwieldy video blog that I recorded with members of The Film Stage, as well as Erin McCarthy, Katey Rich, Eric D. Snider, and Matt Patches. Watch to hear us discuss our reactions to this film.

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About the Author

David Chen currently lives and works in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter at @davechensky. He can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

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