It's tough to say 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' quickly. It is also difficult to remember the title if you are hard pressed at a cocktail party. But the appeal of the movie resides in a bit of confusion - so the title is apt.
Besides the performances and quality direction [by first time director Sean Durkin], the film's form and editing is what makes it all work. It skips effortlessly back and forth in time from the first day Martha [Marcy May] enters the cult in the Catskill mountains of New York to her paranoid days living with her sister and [even more uptight] husband who are on vacation at a lake in Connecticut.
The film continually presents us psychological conflicts and interestingly tense situations that seem as though they will boil over but which, actually, smoothly role along giving the film an effectively slow creep.
Oh, yeah, and Elizabeth Olsen is really rather darn attractive. [At least to this reviewer]. She is in every scene and we often see many close-ups of her expressive eyes. She has a natural beauty that - in some ways - manages to distract from the plot; Especially when the tastefully done but obligatory indie-film nude scenes come along.
Nonetheless, all for authenticity!
If there is one weakness in the film it is the cult that Martha belongs to. The film asks us to believe in the character yet it wants us to believe she would belong to a cult that seems to have no reason for being other than to please the cult leader's sexual desires. If the audience is asked to believe in a full-fledged character you have to also make that which they believe in believable. I other words, the screenwriter should show us why Martha and the other women would want to belong to the cult. Especially because each of them have to endure the pain and humiliation of rape soon after they join. If the only reward is gardening and occasionally sneaking into rich people's homes then the motivation invites incredulity.
*SPOILER OF SORTS*
Some are confused or annoyed at the film's ending. But, if you think about it, it would be completely unsatisfactory for the film to end any other way. They would have had to tack on another 30 minutes at the end of the film and [most likely] find a way to kill the cult leader - which would make the movie a completely different one and, to my mind, an unrealistic one.
To those who don't get the movie's ending; It's called form following content; Martha is confused and paranoid and her own state-of-mind is precarious. Therefore, the movie puts us in that place as well. By the end, we don't what the heck is going to happen - and neither does she.