Elizabeth Olsen is sensationally good, flipping between the innocent beguilement of Marcy May and Martha's crippling anxiety.

Story highlights

Elizabeth Olsen stars in the title role of 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

The audience shares in the confusion with Martha, who is haunted by nightmares

Reviewer says it's a spellbinding portrait of a shattered young woman

CNN  — 

There is something deeply unsettling about this prickly, suspenseful first feature from writer director Sean Durkin.

Although “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is set exclusively in bucolic surroundings, on a farm somewhere in the Catskills and in a luxurious lakeside cabin in Connecticut, the film is pregnant with dread.

The threat of violence, implied or imagined, haunts its troubled, many-named heroine from the opening minutes, when she makes her bid for freedom. She wakes in the pre-dawn, picks her way out of a slumbering room, heads out the front door and into the trees. But she doesn’t get far before someone raises the alarm for “Marcy May,” and she breaks into a run. Later, after it seems she’s free and clear, the same man catches up with her in at a diner in a nearby town. He sidles up and makes easy conversation. There is no coercion, no physical duress in this public place, but the menace is almost overpowering. And then he leaves.

Has she been relinquished? Was she free to leave all along? Marcy May – or Martha, as she calls herself when she phones for help – does not believe it. And sensing her traumatized, near-catatonic panic, nor do we. But it’s only gradually that we come to comprehend the reasons for her great distress.

Durkin (who produced the chilly “Afterschool”) does a very clever thing here. He cuts between Martha’s painfully incremental rehabilitation and recovery at the home rented by her older half-sister and her architect husband (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy), and flashbacks to Martha’s induction to the commune from which we’ve already seen her escape. But the transitions are hard cuts, and often intentionally disorienting, so we’re not always immediately sure what’s past and present.

It’s a confusion we share with Martha, who is haunted by nightmares from the farm and acts out in ways that her family is hard-pressed to accept, let alone understand. Durkin gestures here towards a surrealist satire in the culture-clash between the bourgeois sister and the reprogrammed, defiantly anti-materialist, sexually uninhibited Martha – though it’s not clear his heart is really in it.

The commune – which initially seems idyllic and empowering – gradually reveals its dark side, embodied both in the passive group-think of its members, and most disturbingly of all in the messianic Patrick (John Hawkes). His soft-spoken self-help platitudes are more Dr. Phil than Charles Manson, until he gets to cocking his pistol and teaching the girls how to shoot.

Hawkes is equally convincing, whether he’s serenading Marcy May on his guitar or blooding her in preparation for a nocturnal raid on the neighboring holiday cottages; a little ad hoc redistribution of wealth to supplement the farm’s organic crop – maybe the one sequence where Durkin, who has a talent for insinuation and withholding, oversteps the mark.

But the movie stands or falls on Martha/Marcy May, and Durkin hit paydirt in casting Elizabeth Olsen. The younger sister to Mary Kate and Ashley, the 21-year-old Olsen is sensationally good, flipping between the innocent, impressionable beguilement of Marcy May (as Patrick rechristens her) and Martha’s crippling, bed-wetting anxiety and anger.

It’s a punishing role but a star-making performance, a spellbinding portrait of a shattered young woman who has been systemically and cynically stripped of all autonomy, and who doesn’t know if the pieces will ever fit back together again.