This critically-acclaimed 2011 release purports to be a psychological study of its protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who becomes a member of an upstate New York commune/cult led by the charismatic John Hawkes (nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Winter’s Bone). The film opens with Martha’s escaping the collective farm, though Hawkes and the other members of the commune (a motley assortment of women who serve him and a few young men) don’t do very much to stop her flight. Martha ends up 3 hours away, at the Connecticut lake home of her wealthy sister and her new husband. There, we learn of her ordeal through flashback (sexual abuse, violence, co-opting and subordination to the whole) while she struggles to adapt to life outside the cult. She provides tension to her sister’s household as she brings bad habits from the commune with her (swimming nude, curling up in the bed of her sister and brother-in-law while they are having sex, condescending to them about their lifestyle) and undergoes post-traumatic stress that manifests itself in panic attacks, wetting herself and refusal to discuss what happened.
All of which makes for a frustratingly monotone of a movie. Martha is treated with such sensitivity by her sister that you sympathize most with the husband, who has to endure a recalcitrant, moody weirdo in his midst without anyone ever saying, “What the hell happened?” Worse, while it is clear that Martha undergoes trauma, her behavior after she endures it suggests a person who was under the sway of the commune since childhood. In fact, Martha was there for two years. Also, the key to a psychological study is an explication of why Martha was lured into the life, but we get no clue as to what Martha was looking for when she voluntarily allowed herself to be part of Hawkes’ crew and scant information on what the cult is really about. Martha seemed shallow and dull in flashback and during present-day, she seems shallow, dull and jittery. Moreover, Martha says some very terrible things about and to her sister (“You’re going to be a terrible mother”), who has the patience of Job, suggesting she was a first-class turd even before she went to the commune. This is not conducive to empathy. Finally, the picture reveals a Manson-esque quality to Hawkes very late, which is awkward and unconvincing.
Another problem is Olsen’s performance. Yes, she does better work than her sisters
ever did on television’s “Full House”, but it is still a one-note, amateurish turn.