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Elizabeth Olsen, Elizabeth Olsen, Elizabeth Olsen. Get used to hearing that name—a lot—for this, her who-the-hell-is-that? turn in the cumbersomely named Martha Marcy May Marlene. You will be impressed. Or else, it seems.
Hype aside, it turns out the Olsen twins’ head-scratchingly normal-seeming, food-eating younger sister is pretty damn good in her first starring role, a part to which she brings understatement when she could have easily gone showy. Olsen plays Martha, a young woman whom we see escape from a rural religious cult at the beginning of the film. There she’s known as Marcy May, so deemed by the group’s skeezy leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, who last year helped usher another unknown, Jennifer Lawrence, to stardom in Winter’s Bone). Patrick rapes all newcomers (which is OK because “we all love each other,” another member assures) but takes a special shine to Martha, singing skin-crawling songs of adoration to her in front of the others and generally paying close attention to her every move and breath.
For a while, Martha/Marcy is happy. But at some point she snaps out of her brainwashed reverie and makes a run for it, seeking the only family she has, a sister named Lucy (Sarah Paulson, perfectly uptight in a do-everything-right, older-sis kind of way). Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), try to be welcome and understand Martha without prodding about where she’s been the past few years. But it gets increasingly more difficult as the visibly damaged girl keeps too quiet and behaves too oddly: In one scene, she walks in on the couple as they’re having sex, and curls up. “What is wrong with you?” Lucy asks more than once.
What’s wrong is shown in flashbacks that rookie writer-director Sean Durkin weaves seamlessly throughout the film. Durkin’s achievement here is as equally laudable as Olsen’s, having crafted a hushed, mesmerizing story that keeps a tight grip, from Martha’s opening dash into the woods until the film’s open-ended (some would say frustrating) finish. Olsen, meanwhile—lovely in a more solid, less weird Olsen-sister way—deftly and realistically walks a tightrope between disturbed and normal, avoiding the bug-eyed, body-rocking cuckooness the character easily could have embodied to project a still, frightened confusion instead. She can make you take notice without saying a word.