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Martha Marcy May Marlene

A hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where Sean Durkin was named Best Director for his feature debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an unsettling psychological exploration that will appeal to audiences who like to pick at the pieces of a story in order to figure out what is going on, and who don’t mind if the answer never comes wholly into view.

At the center of the film is Martha, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who looks rather more like Vera Farmiga than her older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley. She leaves the Catskills farmhouse where she has been living communally with a dozen or so other young people in their 20s and calls her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who takes her to the Connecticut summer home where she is vacationing with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).

Though she is Martha’s only family, Lucy hasn’t heard from her sister in two years. She volunteers only that she is leaving a boyfriend who lied to her, but clearly she has picked up some psychological scars she didn’t have when they last lived together. The few early scenes we see of the commune imply that it is more likely a cult, under the sway of a charismatic—well, may as well say it—Manson-ish older man named Patrick (the fearsome John Hawkes, of Winter’s Bone).

As the film progresses quietly, with no score other than an occasional subtle drone, Martha tries to fit in with her bourgeois sister’s life while picking over her experiences on the farm. Are these memories or dreams? Martha isn’t sure, and neither are we. The only thing that becomes clear is that she has not left her traumas behind her.

Durkin, who also scripted his film, has said that the film was inspired by a story in Helter Skelter about a girl who left Charles Manson’s cult, rejoined her family for a few weeks, and then vanished. But Martha Marcy May Marlene is less a film about messianic cults than about the kind of unformed person who might chose to join one. It’s closer to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion than to Black Swan, with Durkin cleverly disguising the constant shifts from present to past (or imagination) so that we’re always a beat behind in knowing where we are. You come away from the film unable to say exactly what happened, which is what makes it linger in your mind.

Watch the trailer for Martha Marcy May Marlene

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