Martha (a flawless performance from Elizabeth Olsen, younger sibling to the twins) makes a desperate, hysterical call to her elder sister from a phone box in Upstate New York. They haven’t spoken in years, but concerned big sis comes and collects her anyway. Picking up on some odd behaviour (which only gets odder as the story unfolds), Martha is invited to stay with her uncomprehending sibling and get back on her feet.
Writer and director Sean Durkin – a virtual unknown when this became the darling of Sundance – wrongfoots his audience almost immediately by splicing scenes from past (Martha’s indoctrination into the cult) and present (Martha’s attempted assimilation into ‘normal’ life) without warning, so that as you think you’re watching one thing, it reveals itself to be another. It’s a technique he exploits to both jarring and wickedly humorous effect throughout, and should be taken as the first clue that this isn’t meant to be the movie you’re expecting.
Be warned: once thoroughly wrapped up in Martha, audiences will likely be divided by its ending. It could be seen as perfectly embodying the storytelling’s deft marriage of the chilling and the playful – or as a complete cop-out.
Another nagging issue is the constant echo of the Manson Family, from the techniques by which followers are drawn into the cult, to the practice of ‘creeping’ around homes – and even the appearance of the leader himself (John Hawkes, last seen in another film about fucked-up communities, Winter’s Bone).
It’s not that Durkin shouldn’t have taken inspiration from one of human history’s most famous and devastating cults, but you can’t help but wonder – why now?
Still, these are minor concerns when promised an engrossing and unpredictable few hours at the cinema – how often does that happen nowadays?
Film review by Laura Chubb
Good for: Anyone who’s sick of remakes and romcoms