- - Thursday, October 27, 2011

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” offers a novel twist on the psychological thriller that takes you deep into the mind of a mentally disturbed individual: It’s designed to drive you nuts.

“Martha” doesn’t exactly fit the traditional definition of a fun time at the movies. It’s uncertain and unsatisfying. It often seems designed as much to provoke its audience as to entertain. But it’s also nervy and taut and at times marvelously executed - a movie that gets inside its protagonist’s messed-up head by keeping the audience as on-edge as she is.

That protagonist is Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen twins Ashley and Mary-Kate), an anxious wreck of a young woman. When we first meet her, she’s slipping away from a quiet but eerie communal farm. In a nearby town, she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who, along with her husband (Hugh Dancy), takes her in.

Lucy’s questions mirror the audience’s. What was Martha doing on that farm? And perhaps more importantly, what was done to her?

As Martha settles in with her sister, the movie offers an increasingly disturbing series of glimpses into her life in the commune - segregated by sex, led by an intense, cultish creep (the bony, shaggy John Hawkes, who seems to specialize in playing intense, cultish creeps).

But Martha refuses to tell anyone about these episodes. When asked about her time away, she sometimes claims that she had a boyfriend and it didn’t work out. Other times she says she just doesn’t know what happened at all.

Writer-director Sean Durkin’s best trick is to ensure that the audience doesn’t know either. The slow revelation of what life may have been like at the farm builds considerable tension - especially as Martha’s behavior at her sister’s home grows increasingly erratic. But it’s the added uncertainty about what, if anything, actually happened that makes the film so unsettling.

Miss Olsen’s performance is the movie’s centerpiece, and it’s a doozy. Her frazzled, nervous turn as Martha suggests some mysterious combination of intelligence, intuition and acute empathy - projecting an unformed, primordial blankness that’s crucial to maintaining the movie’s edge and believability. Watching her is like watching a department-store mannequin suddenly come alive and figure out how to be human. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a smart performance or merely a highly natural one - but either way, it’s impressive.

The same goes for Mr. Durkin, who, in his directorial debut, demonstrates considerable control and vision, keeping the camera focused intently on his protagonist - often simply resting on her face as the main action takes place off screen.

At times, the movie plays like an endurance test: Mr. Durkin amps up the environmental sound, washes out his images, and firmly refuses to hold the viewer’s hand, or explain what’s real and what’s not. No doubt it will make a lot of viewers crazy. But that’s the idea.

TITLE: “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Sean Durkin

RATING: R for nudity, violence, disturbing subject matter

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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