"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a tongue twister of a title that makes chilling sense as the film unfolds. In quiet, intimate ways, it is one of the most startling, haunting films you'll see all year.
Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of twin multimedia moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley — although we won't have to qualify her in terms of her more famous siblings for long — stars in the title role. She's a reserved woman in her 20s who is skittishly fleeing a hippieish cult in upstate New York at the film's start. She reaches out and calls her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), from whom she's been estranged for a couple of years, for help. At this point, she's known by her real name of Martha.
Writer-director Sean Durkin seamlessly cuts back and forth in time. In the present, Martha is awkwardly trying to assimilate to normal life with Lucy and her British architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their peaceful Connecticut lake house. But memories increasingly plague Martha of her time at the idyllic but slightly creepy farm ruled by the calmly charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). He gave Martha a new name, Marcy May, initiated her through the same ritual all the women there endured and insisted she was his favorite when he sensed her apprehension.
Hawkes is frightening without ever raising his voice; he simply radiates menace, and after very different roles in "Winter's Bone," ''Higher Ground" and "Contagion," he again reveals his range and versatility. Patrick makes his followers feel safe even though that's clearly the last thing they are, and Hawkes makes the character as fascinating as he is fearsome.
Despite returning to a more traditional, stable life, Martha hasn't entirely left this place in her mind; vague references to being "a teacher and leader" suggest the brainwashing she suffered. Lucy tries to understand Martha's standoffishness, her weird behavior, but Martha is still too screwed up to let her in. Durkin doesn't judge either sister for the causes of their strained relationship, or Martha for whatever loneliness or need for acceptance might have driven her toward the cult in first place.
As the psychological abuse of the past and the paranoia of the present converge and collide, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" builds to a gripping, terrifying climax. But Durkin achieves this effect in the most ingenious of ways: through steady camerawork and long takes, naturalistic lighting and ambient noise. He grabs you in a way you may not even actively perceive as you're watching the film; rather, he creates a cumulative sensation that sneaks up on you subconsciously.
He's an exciting filmmaker to watch, having made a movie about a tawdry, tabloid-ready topic without injecting an ounce of sensationalism. And his last shot is tantalizingly ambiguous, and a sign of real confidence.
But Olsen is just as much of a discovery. She has a beautiful, open face that seems placid, but also subtly conveys her character's torment. At times she resembles Maggie Gyllenhaal or perhaps a young Faye Dunaway, with her deep-set eyes and prominent cheekbones, but she has a fascinating, mysterious presence all her own.
It's a brave, thrilling performance in a film that is far and away one of the year's best.
"Martha Marcy May Marlene," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 101 minutes. Four stars out of four.