“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something’s a memory or it’s something you dreamed?” Posed by the film’s titular main character (newcomer Elizabeth Olsen), this is one of the central questions behind “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the excellent feature debut from director Sean Durkin. In this elusive psychological drama, nothing is ever certain — the audience drifts through time and space isolated from the outside world, piecing together the lives of the characters — and it’s entirely captivating.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

State Theater
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The film opens with a montage of wide, grainy and static shots of an unidentified rural landscape, where anonymous youths languidly work the field. From this agrarian existence, Martha (here called Marcy May) escapes and is rescued by her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, “Serenity”). Here the narrative splits, telling the story of Martha’s readjustment into normal life with Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy, “Adam”), a young couple trying to start a family, in parallel with Martha’s time in a sinister, bohemian cult in the wilderness.

While Martha tries to assimilate herself into her sister’s life, her behavior becomes progressively stranger. She reveals sociopathic tendencies in her reticence and detachment, as well as her inability to behave and interact appropriately with people. These scenes are seen alongside the story of Martha’s involvement in a cult led by the rugged, creepy Patrick, played brilliantly by John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”), a mesmerizing man who rules over his cult’s members (mostly young women) completely — physically, emotionally and sexually.

As the title suggests, Martha is an enigmatic, almost unknowable character. But thanks to a powerful, nuanced performance by Olsen, Martha comes beautifully alive onscreen. Yet hers is a complicated beauty — as the passive camera shows Martha matter-of-factly skinny-dipping in broad daylight, or almost being raped by Patrick, her sexuality is a constant source of tension, alternately alluring and disturbing. Martha herself seems confused by it, and this confusion results in some of the film’s most compelling scenes.

Late in the movie, when Martha is becoming disillusioned with the cult and wary of its brutality, one of her fellow cult members says, “There’s no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist.” It’s a principle that the movie mimics. Martha’s past is hazy, and her future uncertain — she only exists in the present moment. She and the rest of the film’s characters inhabit a timeless, placeless isolation. As the movie progresses, a crushing loneliness bears down, guided by the sure directorial hand of Durkin, whose probing camera never reveals a complete picture, forcing Martha’s feelings of isolation on the audience.

“Martha” forces the viewer to think, to engage with the film intellectually and emotionally. And though it’s confusing at points, the characters and their relationships are fascinating. Durkin, for such a young director, has complete control over his film and an already fully developed visual style.

As the film goes on, the lines between Martha’s life in the cult and her time with her sister begin to blur. The transitions between her memories and the present become more fluid, so that sometimes it’s unclear which we’re seeing. The events, too, begin to mirror each other, Lucy’s behavior toward Martha becoming eerily similar to her treatment by Patrick and the cult. It’s a poignant comparison, but one that is at times heavy-handed. However, it’s a small flaw in an otherwise perfect film.

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