The film opens on a peaceful, pastoral landscape in the Catskills, as crickets chirp in the background. Male farmhands lurk in the background doing chores, while groups of young women are seen sitting together on an old-fashioned porch, knitting and talking. As more people, including young children and teenagers, exit the white, two-story house, it becomes blatant we’re witnessing a small commune.
That evening, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), one of the members, sets dinner places around a large dining table. She finishes and looks outside at her home. A brief expression of distress crosses her face. Later, the hierarchical dinner proceedings are established. The senior members, which include the 20-something Watts (Brady Corbett) and the leader of the group, Patrick (John Hawkes), eat first. The others wait their turn on the stairwell nearby. After they finish, Patrick smiles lovingly at everyone around the table and leaves.
We cut to early morning the next day. Everyone sleeps together on beds and the floor in blankets. From the corner of the room, Martha slowly rises out of her bed fully dressed and sneaks out of the house. It isn’t until she hits the woods on the other side of the road that Watts spots her. He calls out for her by her given name, “Marcy Mae,” but she is already gone.
We jump forward a few hours to find Martha in a small-town diner, devouring a plate of chicken fingers. Behind her, the door swings open with a bell, and she freezes. Watts voice confirms her fears from the side. He sits down and asks what she’s doing. She replies half-heartedly in a mix of excuses, and he grows silently upset. When it becomes obvious that she isn’t going to leave willingly, he simply finishes her plate of food and leaves her trembling. Martha begins to cry.
Martha then travels outside a bus station and calls a number on a pay phone. Her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), picks up, and immediately detects Martha is in trouble. After a tense conversation in which Martha threatens to hang up, Lucy finally convinces her to stay with her at her Connecticut home three hours away.
Lucy lives in a stunning vacation home on a lake with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), both of them taking some time off from working in New York. She tells Martha this, in addition to plans for a child with Ted, while settling her in to a guest room upstairs. There is obvious tension between them from last time they spoke, but Martha brushes it off and goes to sleep. Lucy retreats outside to greet Ted, who first asks how Martha’s doing, before jokingly inquiring as to the duration of her stay. The couple shares a brief laugh.
The next morning, Martha displays some odd behavior, such as refusing food and swimming naked in the public lake. Lucy admonishes her while simultaneously trying to find out what happened in her absence.
NOTE: While Martha keeps her story drawn up within, the audience finds out via deliberately-placed, associative flashbacks to Martha’s time in the commune.
The first of these occur as Martha and her friend Zoe (Louise Krause), whom we presume led her to this place, sit in a field talking. Patrick walks to up to the girls, and Martha is introduced to him. He obviously takes a liking to her, before noting that she “looks more like a Marcy Mae.” A musical performance by Patrick later confirms it, as he dedicates the song to Marcy Mae. He looks at her in the audience and she smiles back, returning the sentiment.
As the group all sleep soundly that night, Marcy Mae wakes up facedown to something on top of her. She glances up to find Patrick raping her from behind, and whispering into her ear, telling her to stay calm. She quietly screams, closes her eyes, and bears the experience. Later on, Marcy Mae is consoled by the other female members, being reassured that what happened was natural and beautiful. After a few moments of resistance, a smile spreads across her face, and she falls asleep once more.
In the present, Ted is increasingly growing tired of Martha’s behavior. He snips at her in conversation, lashes out at Lucy when she defends her, and retracts his initial support of Martha’s home rehabilitation. Things come to a boil with Martha and Lucy as well, when they exchange heated words on a stairwell late at night. Martha ends the fight by coldly telling Lucy she’ll be a horrible mother, and returning to her bedroom.
Things escalate in the flashbacks as well. Martha notices fresh new faces coming into the community, reminding her of the experiences she once went through, including the forced night with Patrick. She is even to teach new members the peculiar guidelines and rules to the house, particularly the phone system, which consists of a protocol that must be followed any time the outside world calls in.
One night, Martha goes with Patrick, Watts, and a few others to a random house nearby. They enter through an unlocked door and begin to steal valuables in the house. Suddenly, the owner, a middle-aged man, confronts them, to which the group reacts with an eerie calm. Watts slowly backs the group out, but then Patrick begins distracting the man with conversation. He grows closer and closer to the man, until a large knife is driven into the owner’s back by someone from the group. Martha panics, as do the others, and they all flee the scene.
As they all return to the house and clean the blood off of their clothes, Martha is visibly upset. She makes the mistake of wondering aloud about leaving, and Patrick admonishes her for it. She agrees to stay, but clearly something is changed in her that will lead her to the situation depicted in the film’s beginning.
In present day, Ted and Lucy hold a party to blow off steam, even though Martha is close to mute by now, and even more emotionally blocked-off. As guests mingle outside, Martha wanders up to the bartender, who casually attempts to flirt with her. He asks if he’s seen her before, a question that puts Martha on edge immediately. She backs away, and starts screaming that they’ve followed her to the home, and that Lucy, Ted, and her, need to leave immediately. She retreats to Lucy’s bedroom, where Lucy and Ted attempt to calm her down, and she eventually passes out.
The next day, Lucy informs Martha that they’ve found a care center nearby. Martha reluctantly gathers her things, and goes for one last swim before leaving. Out on the water, she wades calmly in the middle of the lake. In a bone-chilling shot, we see the opposite side of the lake from where Martha swims, and we see a young man dressed in white sitting on the rocks, staring at her.
Martha returns to the shore and meets Lucy and Ted, who are waiting for her in the car. In a final, unbroken shot on Martha’s face, we stay inside the car as the three drive away from the house, and Martha looks back. The brakes squeal as Ted stops for a man - blurry and out of focus, but similar to the man in white seen moments before - who runs to a car and begins following Ted’s car.
Nothing else is in focus but Martha’s face, as she looks at her sister, Ted, then looks back over her shoulder at the car. A look of panic crosses her face as the film cuts to black, and the credits begin.
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