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If the program guide description didn’t tell you that writer/director Sean Durkin’s film was about a woman fleeing a cult, you probably wouldn’t know from the first hour of watching that it was about a woman fleeing a cult—and that’s part of what makes it so unsettling. ---

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens with Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) sneaking out in the early morning from an apparently idyllic upstate New York commune. After a panicked call to her older sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson)—who calls her by the name “Martha”—the narrative begins to slide back and forth between her stay with Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy), and her life on the commune run by the quietly charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes).

It’s only gradually that Durkin shows his hand that this is going to be a sort of psychological horror tale, with a rumble of low-key menace throughout. But it’s also a fascinating character study, one that peels back the layers on why such a thought-controlling environment comes to exert its influence, with Durkin never afraid to include a bizarre moment that will only make sense a bit later on. There are a few tonal stumbles in Martha’s more paranoid moments, but Olsen’s performance is generally gripping. And by the time the film reaches its final scene—one that’s sure to inspire frustration in some viewers—it has built the fascinating case for why Martha/Marcy May might not be sure which life makes the most sense to her.

Martha Marcy May Marlene plays Saturday, 9:30 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Center.

For more screening times, click here.