Two of the year’s most stunning debuts—one behind the camera, one in front of it—distinguish Martha Marcy May Marlene, which somehow failed to win the top prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by first-timer Sean Durkin (who did win a Sundance award), it stars Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, as all of the title characters, who are radically conflicting identities of the same dangerously confused young woman. Durkin has come up with a doozy of an idea: What if someone escaped from a cult and returned to her family, but her family had no idea she’d just spent two years in a cult? Martha, as she was christened at birth, has more or less opted to deprogram herself, with predictably uncertain and harrowing results.
Essentially an exercise in psychological horror, the movie cuts jaggedly back and forth between Martha’s time under the thumb of a charismatic lunatic (John Hawkes, from Winter’s Bone), who renames her Marcy May, and her ostensible return to normality at her sister’s (Sarah Paulson) idyllic lake house. What makes the film so singular is that the scenes with the cult, while often ugly and dehumanizing, gradually start to feel like a respite from Martha’s increasingly shaky navigation of the real world, to which she no longer feels wholly connected. Olsen gives a magnificently ambiguous performance that will instantly eclipse any snarky comments about her famous siblings, and Durkin knows precisely how much information to reveal and how much to leave frighteningly implicit. By any name, this is one of the year’s very best films.