Frustration and heartache is all she's got. Young, doe-eyed Martha (Olsen) sneaks away from an upstate New York farmhouse in the ominous opening of Sean Durkin's impressive feature debut. It's an expertly tense sequence: Who is this tormented-looking girl who vanishes into the forest like a specter, later clutching a pay phone like it's the one thing tethering her to sanity? Only after Martha's on-edge, upper-middle-class sister, Lucy (Paulson), shows up to retrieve her long-lost sibling do we glimpse the existence she has left behind. And it's not a pretty sight.
The film toggles back and forth between Martha's dehumanizing past at the dilapidated compound run by the Manson-like Patrick (Hawkes, the ultimate ingratiating creep) and the no-less-upsetting present as she adjusts poorly to "normal" life with Lucy and her architect husband, Ted (Dancy), at their lakeside retreat. Yet no clear division exists between the two time periods. To Martha, everything is happening at once: A barbaric induction ceremony at the cult headquarters is as vivid, immediate and damaging as a psyche-shredding party thrown by Lucy and Ted. (Even the tap-tap-tap of acorns on the roof sends her into horrified spasms.) Durkin and Olsen do a brilliant job of showing Martha's complete inability to stay grounded---a personality crisis in which identity is the missing component (at various points the character is also known as Marcy May and Marlene). A lesser movie might hammer home the idea that the cult squashes Martha's sense of self. This distinctive and haunting effort implies something much scarier: that there is no self to start with.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich
Watch the trailer