A psychological thriller at heart but stripped of all the usual Hollywood trappings, Martha Marcy May Marlene unfolds at a leisurely pace that befits the cult's ramshackle surroundings. Patrick is a modern-day Fagin with a yen for damaged young women fleeing their pasts and desperately seeking emotional and spiritual sustenance. They arrive at the farm either in the company of one of the other girls or Patrick's underling Watts (Corbet), a handsome rogue equally beguiled by his leader's smooth, serpentine tongue. Once there, they're put to work in homespun clothes, made to cook the meals but not allowed to share the men's dinner table. In the ratty bedrooms upstairs, it's another matter entirely.
Durkin cleverly messes with the traditional narrative structure as Martha flees the group and eventually arrives at the home of her well-to-do sister Lucy (Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Dancy). The tone and tale swerve (sometimes, it seems, randomly) between Martha's identity-obliterating life at the farm and the resultant paranoia that envelops her once she lands at Lucy and Ted's bucolic summer home.
Durkin, working with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier, masterfully sustains an aura of oppressive threat throughout. Like its scared, damaged, and terribly confused protagonist, Durkin's film seems to exist in its own fractured dream state. It's hypnotic, narcotic, and trembling on the verge of either dread or redemption or some hazy state of nothingness in between.