I don't know if it's technically a horror film, but MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is the creepiest, quietest, low key, slow burn of a movie I've seen in ages. It's a marvel of tone and mood. And it helps that it all could be real. A lot of films of this sort go crazy after the slow burn build up, but this one sustains the tension right to the last shot, which suggest many possible things.
The unnamed "M" that belongs with the title is MANSON. Martha manages to escape from a cult at the beginning of the film and ends up with her estranged sister at a lake house, although her sister doesn't know exactly what she's been through. There she tries to reintegrate with society. Things don't go well as the film has a subjective stream of consciousness quality as we travel back and forth between the cult and the lake house.
Elizabeth Olsen is great. She's a woman without an identity in the world. Someone who at the very least is suffering from PTSD from the abuses she's received. She might very well be paranoid schizophrenic. The movie revolves around her, often in silent closeup, as we try to make sense of her as she tries to discover herself anew. And, perhaps, forget the past. But, it's clear that the past isn't easy to wash away, despite a large lake right outside. It's a star making turn.
John Hawkes is also fantastic. He manages to evoke the charisma of Manson without falling into easy cliches. You can just tell though that he views the world and people as something to manipulate to his whims. He tears down and builds up his harem of women and followers according to his needs.
There's a trifle of class warfare in this film. Hawkes' cult lives simply off the land in a commune like existence. They talk about being self sufficient, even as they'll have no problem staging home invasions of the rich for things to steal. The lake house world is a world of total privilege. There are two "families" here, Hawkes' "family" and Martha's blood family, and you can sort of see the male patriarchs in charge of both world. Martha's brother-in-law uses his wealth and privilege prinicipally to rule his roost. There are scenes in both sections where Martha is drugged, for instance. I think this subtext is a little overstated, but it's not so much so that both world's are drawn as equivalents.
About the only elements I'd criticize are Martha's sister and brother-in-law, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy. They're not bad, but they're not in the class of Olsen and Hawkes and they seem more like cut outs than fully realized characters.
Still, terrific, creepy movie. I'll want to see more from Olsen and the writer-director Sean Durkin in the future.