Elizabeth Olsen finds her own identity in cult film ‘Martha Marcy May

"MARTHA Marcy May Marlene" is an effective indie about cult psychology, but it will probably be remembered as the movie that put Elizabeth Olsen on the map.

She's the younger sister of former child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley, and it's no disrespect to the other two to say that Elizabeth is by far the best actress.

She's a natural and a camera magnet, with a changeable face that recalls Faye Dunaway one moment, Merle Oberon the next. And a curvy figure that itself is a throwback to plushly appointed actresses of yore - there is a topless scene in "Martha" that gives new meaning to the phrase "the Olsen twins."

Not that we movie critics notice, being professionals. Certainly we are more focused on her impressive inventory of ready emotions - confusion, shame, fear, and dozens more, all deployed in "Martha" to play a young woman trying to free herself from the person she became in the cult she recently fled.

She suddenly turns up on the doorstep of her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy) after being off the family radar for several years. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" fills in the blanks by flashing back to Martha's days in a rural cult.

It's run by a man (John Hawkes) with a gift for spotting vulnerabilities in the young. Lost, needy Martha is welcomed, praised, given a name and a place. Only gradually does her immersion in this small community begin to feel like a rigid form of control, then bullying, then something worse. Writer-director Sean Durkin, who based his screenplay on a lot of firsthand interviews with cult refugees, gives us a convincing portrait of life inside the group.

He and Olsen are able to show how hard it is for Martha to summon the courage to leave a place with no walls, no fences. Leaving her mental enclosure is another matter - she's unable to confide in her sister, unable to describe the experience even to herself. On some deep level she remains captive, fearful, stalked by something.

Olsen makes all of this seem vividly real, and each of her scenes is alive with tension, so that Durkin's nonlinear, episodic narrative never really flags.

In fact the movie plays at times like a thriller, setting up (along with some Manson references) expectations for an explosive finale that never materializes.

What does pop up, from time to time, is a very dry, very bleak sense of humor. By alternating between Hawkes' unctuous oppression and Dancy's bossy tantrums, Durkin makes some furtive comparisons between cults and marriage, so try not to see it on your anniversary.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by T. Sean Durkin. With Louisa Krause, Julia Garner, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Paulson, Maria Dizzia, John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.

Running time: 2 hours, 0 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, nudity and language).

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