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Movie Review

Martha Marcy May Marlene

A lost soul seeks a way back: Elizabeth Olsen delivers a haunting performance

Elizabeth Olsen stars as a young woman on the run from a cult and its leader, played by John Hawkes, in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.’’ Elizabeth Olsen stars as a young woman on the run from a cult and its leader, played by John Hawkes, in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.’’ (jody lee lipes)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011

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In “Martha Marcy May Marlene,’’ we spend 101 minutes trying to get into the head of a woman who’s trying her hardest to keep us out. The four title characters are really just one - a 20-something girl running from a cult back into the uncomprehending arms of her family - and Elizabeth Olsen plays the role with an eerie control that’s very close to losing control and that becomes terribly moving as the story progresses. The film has its gimmicky aspects but Olsen is haunting: She grounds the slim premise and makes it worthwhile.

When the film opens, “Marcy May’’ has slipped out of the ramshackle upstate New York farm where the cult lives and taken to the woods, hiding in a ravine as the others flash by calling her name. She makes it to town and to a phone, where an oblique phone call brings her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from one state over. Lucy’s expecting to bring home the teenager she knew as Martha, but after a three-year absence Martha’s not there anymore.

The film, moody and increasingly wracked with tension, is the work of Sean Durkin, who makes his feature debut here after a handful of shorts. It’s confident enough to take things slowly, folding Martha back into her sister’s life while giving us increasingly disturbing flashbacks to life on the farm. The sister is a trim, nervous Manhattanite newly married to a British architect named Ted (Hugh Dancy); they’re the type of couple who take all their cues from The New York Times Style section. We can see why Martha fled, even as we feel the concern welling in Lucy’s eyes.

Lucy and Ted bring Martha to their weekend home in Connecticut and try to sort her out. The house, airy and almost threateningly clean, stands in contrast to the bucolic funk of the farm, where a group of lost boys and girls have been gathered in by Patrick, a sort of kinder, gentler Charles Manson played by - who else? - John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone’’). Patrick gives Martha a new name or two, provides her with chores and rules and an outcast’s sense of belonging, and, when she’s ready, drugs and rapes her. The other women insist this is a beautiful event and, unmoored from reality, “Marcy’’ comes to agree. Among other things, the film observes how easy it is for an uncertain self to be obliterated.

The flashbacks build to a nightmarish pitch, and eventually they hop over the edge of reason with malevolent glee. The scenes in the present, by comparison, feel like the morning after the fire. Lucy isn’t sure whether she has Martha back or just someone who used to answer to that name, and Olsen uses her wide, blue eyes and big, slightly awkward frame to suggest a woman who’s between worlds, at least for the moment and at worst permanently. We see flashes of the angry teenager she used to be, as well as the strong young woman she could have been and may yet become. And we see trauma, clinical shock, and justified paranoia.

It’s a pretty amazing performance, worthy of the hype that can surround talented newcomers who are also attractive and blond. Part of the buzz about Olsen has to do with the pop irony of her being an actual actress in a family of tabloid fixtures (her older sisters are the former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). So, fine, she’s the Ashley Judd of her generation. Yet the way Olsen builds Martha from the inside and then hollows her out is subtle and impressive. It’s a lived-in performance rather than a thought-out one; through the ruins of who Martha is now, Olsen obliquely suggests who she once was.

So director and star are matched in skill and all that’s wrong is the ending. Some films beg for ambiguity (the current “Take Shelter,’’ for instance) while others demand resolution. Durkin, though, leaves us at a truly frustrating fork in the road - frustrating because we’ve invested so much by now in Martha (or whoever she is) but also because the film has been constructed to build to a climax that isn’t allowed to happen. This doesn’t feel like art, it feels like a cop-out, as though Durkin couldn’t decide how to end his movie, so he didn’t. He’s a mature filmmaker - a natural - but he’s still thinking in shorts.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE Written and directed by: Sean Durkin

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes

At: Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated: R (disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity, language)