About halfway through Sean Durkin’s terrifying drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, the possibly crazy Elizabeth Olsen asks her uptight sister Sarah Paulson if she’s ever had trouble telling the difference between a dream and a memory. Paulson says no, but anyone who has ever had that trouble will likely be extra-shaken by what happens next, and by Martha Marcy May Marlene as a whole. When Olsen asks this, she’s just a few days removed from escaping a cult: a group of back-to-nature, share-and-share-alike, free-love types who live together on a Catskills farm, lorded over by the guitar-playing, coolly persuasive John Hawkes. But now Olsen is living with Paulson and Paulson’s new husband (Hugh Dancy) in their swank lakeside vacation home in Connecticut. And at night, she hears knocking sounds on the roof, which reminds her of the stones she and her fellow cultists used to throw at big houses, to see if anyone was home before they snuck in and burgled the places. Are her old cult-mates coming to take her back? Or is this all in her head? Is she—just maybe—completely misremembering what happened to her on the farm?
That uncertainty about what’s real and what’s imagined makes Martha Marcy May Marlene a little hard to follow in its back half, as Durkin flows freely between flashbacks to the compound and scenes at the lake house, with little to indicate clearly where we are at any given moment. But because the movie plays on so many common fears—including fears of being in a remote house with big windows when intruders arrive—the confusion of Martha Marcy May Marlene proves effective, not sloppy. It helps that Olsen and Paulson give such strong performances, playing sisters who’ve never really gotten along, and who have decades of painful memories between them. What makes Olsen’s cult experience so unnerving is that in many ways, she’s a better fit out in the wild with maniacs than she is in Paulson’s upper-class dream-world. She’s a true outsider, unsure of where to go, what to do, or who to be. And then there are those damned windows, which Durkin keeps sticking into the back of shots, as a reminder that Olsen’s past could come back to consume her—and that part of her maybe wishes it would.