'Martha Marcy May Marlene' review: Remarkably, fascinatingly creepy

EntertainmentMusicMoviesSundance Film FestivalMartha Marcy May Marlene (movie)John HawkesHugh Dancy

***1/2 (out of four)

Talk about two very different lives. Now Martha’s (Elizabeth Olsen) at a cozy Connecticut lake house with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) with no responsibility and a tendency toward anti-social behavior. Until she ran away, however, Martha spent the last two years in a rural cult where she was dubbed Marcy May, rules on the farm were strict and the leader (John Hawkes) brilliantly brainwashed everyone without actually saying anything at all. Damn you, elliptical language.

The buzz: Yes, Elizabeth Olsen is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, but her acting chops are just a bit more advanced (though we’ve yet to see how she works with her ranger uncle and his talking woodchuck). “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the feature debut of writer-director Sean Durkin, was a big talker at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why: Its unsettling portrait of a little-seen existence rivals “Winter’s Bone.”

The verdict: “Martha Marcy May Marlene” paints a disturbing psychological profile out of fractured, haunted memories and a broken-down person who changes into someone else and struggles to change back. A choppy structure perhaps obscures the notion that the present-day plot doesn’t move very far, but that’s also the past refusing to go away. The movie, and Martha’s ever-present sense of menace, are transfixing in their state of shock. Olsen and Hawkes, who has a beautiful, terrifying musical performance, are especially chilling in a film packed with moments that can be described that way. It’s debatable if Durkin’s insight matches his sense of authenticity, but he squares in on the fragility of people and of society, where normalcy is open to interpretation.

Did you know? After climbing into the bed while Lucy and Ted are having sex, Martha defends her actions by claiming that it’s a big bed, and they were on the other side. Lawyered!

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

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EntertainmentMusicMoviesSundance Film FestivalMartha Marcy May Marlene (movie)John HawkesHugh Dancy
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