I’ll admit it: If I’d known ahead of time this movie (limited release, Oct. 21) is about a young woman struggling to survive her cult experience, I probably wouldn’t have rushed out to the screening sponsored by the L.A. Times. Elizabeth Olsen (the famous twins’ younger sister) stars as the titular character, who escapes from a cult in the Catskills at the beginning of the movie and goes to live with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Martha doesn’t want to talk about the years she fell out of touch with Lucy and insists she’s fine, that she was simply living with a boyfriend who lied to her and now it’s over. But of course it’s not, as we see the damage gradually emerging and threatening her ability to move on.
Olsen has received lots of buzz since the movie premiered at Sundance and she deserves it. She seems effortless and completely guileless in a role that’s difficult to pull off due to Martha’s capriciousness. The movie incorporates flashbacks to show what happened to her (writer/director Sean Durkin, who did Q & A afterward, said they’re not really flashbacks since Martha’s past and present are all jumbled together in her mind) but it’s always clear when each scene took place because there was much more innocence in Martha’s face before she was ruined by Patrick (John Hawkes), the cult leader. The performance is more striking considering that when Olsen came out (more like she bounced/skipped out) to do the Q &A, she was bubbly and smart and confident, not the first person you’d think of to play a mousy girl in search of herself.
Paulson is also impressive as the sister who desperately wants to know Martha’s secrets but is scared of driving her away again. Lucy’s benign smiles can’t cover up the frustration she feels from being unable to communicate with Martha. Hawkes, after Winter’s Bone, risks being Hollywood’s go-to creepy dude, but he’s so good and oddly charismatic that it’s hard to imagine someone else being more effective.
Durkin can be commended for eliciting strong performances from the cast and for using restraint, allowing the audience to fill in the more disturbing aspects. But his pacing is contemplative since most of the conflicts are internal. Sometimes the score is a little too heavy-handed, as if it were shouting, “Creepy scene alert!” through a bullhorn. And the ambiguous ending…well, it’s hardly satisfying but it’ll certainly stimulate discussions afterward.
Nerd verdict: Finely acted film that May anger and/or disturb you
Photo: Jody Lee Lipes/Twentieth Century Fox