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Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (R)

What does it mean to be accepted, and how far would you allow yourself to be subjugated in a quest for that? As a young woman who fled her family, joined up with a sinister cult and is now trying to leave them in her past, Elizabeth Olsen is an unusual mix of uncertain fragility and steely efficiency. She’s equal parts still indoctrinated — getting naked at inappropriate times, for instance — and trying to start a new life, moving in with her sister and her husband. But she won’t tell them what she’s gone through, and it’s unclear how much of her paranoia is based in hallucination and how much of it is really real. That doesn’t make it any less creepy, of course. It may get to you even more that way.

The film is told partly through flashbacks, but the beginning gives us a chilling insight into what we immediately need to know: In a grassy field in the Catskill Mountains, a decrepit-looking farmhouse stands in the wilderness. Men eat first, then the women. Everyone’s wearing clothes that don’t fit quite right. Leader Patrick (John Hawkes) is undeniably both magnetic and terrifying. And yet the next morning, walking past a room where everyone sleeps together in a jumble, Marcy May (Olsen) slips on her dirty clothes, slips out the door and slips into the forest. She’s not getting away easy, of course — quite soon, Patrick sends a group after her — but when Watts (Brady Corbet) finds her in a local diner, she seems horrified of him, too. He kisses her forehead, and we can sense how trapped she feels.

And then, after a brief conversation, he’s gone. And so, we think, are they all — Marcy May calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up, even though they haven’t spoken in years. Lucy thinks Martha — her sister’s original first name — was with “some boyfriend,” and, a little guilty over abandoning her years ago, urges her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) to be nice to her. But nearly everything Martha does, remnants of the cult life we know about and they don’t, freaks Lucy and Ted out. “Why is the house so big?” she asks her sister, shocked that “no one else lives here.” “I just lost track, I guess,” she answers Ted when he inquires why she didn’t contact anyone for two years. And when Lucy tries to get the bottom of why Martha is so distant about where she’s been, convinced she’s been abused or mistreated, Martha is curt in her reply: “I had a boyfriend, he lied to me, that’s it. Not everything has to be a big deal.”

It is a big deal, though, as we soon learn when we see innocent, clean, happy Martha joining the cult, get swallowed into their craziness and fall increasingly under Patrick’s spell. He charms girls by talking about nature — “It’s as much as yours as it is mine” — but he’s not rainbows and butterflies. He’s a calculating guy who knows how to twist people’s wills, especially when he sneaks into Martha’s brain by giving her the new name Marcy May, writing her a song and saying seemingly honest stuff like, “I know people have abandoned you your whole life. … Let us in. We want to help you. … You need to be part of things.” What he does, and the rest of the cult does, to make her “part of things” are some of the film’s most haunting scenes.

The film rests on Olsen’s and Hawkes’s shoulders, and they each do devastatingly well. Olsen is immeasurably complex here, achingly beautiful (and willing to get a little naked) and profoundly sad, and she wonderfully transmits the smoldering resentment Martha has toward Lucy and the increasing paranoia surrounding her reacceptance into the real world. As she transforms from the girl we first see to the one we’ll eventually fear, it’s an uncanny, eerie role reversal. And when has Hawkes ever been unbelievable, no matter how evil he gets? Much like the character Teardrop he played in last year’s “Winter’s Bone,” Patrick is one totally bad guy with irresistible magnetism. He sees all and can read people unbelievably well, and when Martha begins to fear him for everything he’s capable of, audiences will, too.

Whether the film is flawless or not depends on how you treat its ending, one that has been dividing critics and early audiences since the film began screening at festivals months ago. But until those final minutes — and including them, if you’re so inclined — it’s fearless, making “Martha Marcy May Marlene” one of the starkest, most honestly and effectively done thrillers so far this year.

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