Martha Marcy May Marlene is a chilling portrayal of cult initiation and leadership. The audience is led on Martha’s (Elizabeth Olsen) journey as she is indoctrinated by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) and persuaded to abandon her family. Entirely convincing in his initially gentle approach, Patrick (John Hawkes) attempts to ‘cleanse’ Martha before developing her into a ‘handler’ who initiates others. As she becomes more deeply schooled in the life of the cult, Martha becomes not just a victim but also an accomplice in the cult’s heinous activities.

This indoctrination is contrasted with Martha’s life immediately following her escape. The two years Martha has spent in Patrick’s commune have left her traumatised and unable to assimilate back into ‘normal’ life. Frequent misunderstandings of socially accepted norms, including those around nudity and sex, make for particularly disturbing scenes.

Not only does Martha Marcy May Marlene criticise the cult’s lifestyle but, by juxtaposing it with ‘normal’ ways of living begs the audience to ask their own questions about whether there are acceptable alternatives to westernised culture (self sufficiency for example). Martha asks some of these questions herself but is unable to articulate her ideas. Similarly, the film raises questions about indoctrinisation, as Martha is asked to see a therapist to help with her re-integration to society.

As the confused and anxious Martha, Elizabeth Olsen puts in an exceptional performance. Olsen’s portrayal of Martha’s conflicting desires to both leave and return to the cult, is mesmerising to watch.

The first-rate script and stellar performances are supported by a remarkable soundtrack which has a mix of stripped back and intimate acoustic guitar songs and climatic symphonies. During Martha’s public breakdown, the soundtrack becomes so oppressive it is possible for the audience to feel part of Martha’s own confusion and the subsequent silence mirrors her sedated state.

In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin has proved a perceptive writer and director, a view that has been confirmed by critics in his receipt of the Best Director prize at the 2011 Sundance Festival. Terrifyingly dark, Martha Marcy May Marlene is seriously good and stays with you long after the credits have rolled, but a disappointingly unsatisfying final scene keeps it just on the edge of five stars.

 VERDICT:   ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ & 1/2

For more on Martha Marcy May Marlene see the official website