Martha Marcy May Marlene

You may have heard that “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a harrowing drama about a young woman trying to get away from a cult. One detail that hasn’t been highlighted very often but that I find interesting — one of many intriguing elements of the story — is that it’s not a religious cult. There are no references to God or spirituality. Quite the opposite, actually: the all-powerful figure at the center of these people’s devotion is a mortal man who professes no special powers or abilities, nor are any ascribed to him. To me, that makes the unchecked influence he has over his group all the more unsettling. Since there is no discernible reason for it, it follows that anyone could become as powerful as he is.

The man’s name is Patrick, and he’s played by John Hawkes, a distinctive character actor who’s fast becoming a director’s go-to guy for subtly terrifying sociopaths. (See also: “Winter’s Bone.”) Yet for as remarkable as Hawkes’ performance is, it’s a supporting role. The film is carried by Elizabeth Olsen, the 21-year-old sister of Mary Kate and Ashley who might have been lost in their shadow if it weren’t for this mesmerizing breakout performance. Where have they been hiding her?!

Olsen’s character, Martha, has spent two years with Patrick’s group, a peaceful-seeming commune of men, women, and children who live on a farm somewhere in New England. As the film begins, she seeks refuge with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), a well-to-do Manhattanite who shares a lakeside country house in Connecticut with her architect husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy and Ted haven’t heard from Martha in two years, and are alarmed by the state she’s in. Though apparently physically healthy, Martha is timid, almost feral, lacking in social decorum and liable to crawl onto the kitchen counter and curl up into a ball. She won’t talk much about what happened in the commune, but it clearly damaged her.

Now the question is whether she can escape from Patrick, psychologically as well as geographically. First-time writer/director Sean Durkin, making an impressive debut, smoothly steps back and forth between the past and the present, revealing more about the insidious ways that life with Patrick affected Martha. Patrick is controlling, but subtly so. He’ll declare, “What’s mine is yours,” but then give you a new name, thus making you his. He and the other men rule the place — at mealtime, the women huddle silently in the kitchen until it’s their turn to eat — yet their dominance is usually expressed without violence. The women are raped, yet there are no handcuffs or barbed-wire fences keeping them there.

Part of what makes Patrick’s world unnerving is that Durkin doesn’t give us all the details of how, exactly, the women are brainwashed, what lies they are taught to believe. What’s more, we can see that some of Patrick’s “doctrine” is actually true. After spending two years living a simple life with few possessions, Martha doesn’t understand why Lucy and Ted need such a spacious house — a vacation house, no less — for just the two of them. Isn’t that wasteful? Martha has a point.

The conflict between Martha’s past and her present accounts for most of the film’s palpable tension. There are scenes of more dramatic, external conflict, but the prevailing concern is over intangible things: what might happen? What did happen? The conclusion doesn’t hold as much power for me as I think it’s supposed to (and I’ve watched it twice); still, there’s no denying that four-fifths of the movie is gripping.

Olsen’s performance is excellent in small but critical ways. We see Martha before she joins the group, during her stay, and afterward, and Olsen’s countenance is noticeably different in each time period, the character’s psychological condition written on her face. This was one of two starring vehicles for Olsen that premiered at Sundance this year, and she’s just as good in the other one, “Silent House,” which also spotlights her ability to play a mixture of vulnerability and strength. She’s the real deal. If she keeps this up, twenty years from now the Olsen twins will be footnotes to Elizabeth’s biography, not the other way around.

B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some nudity, some strong sexuality and violence.)