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Before “Martha Marcy May Marlene” debuted at Sundance, its chief talking point was that annoyingly alliterative title. Initially regarded as a possible hindrance, the tongue-twister has instead proved to be as memorable as anything in Sean Durkin’s quietly disquieting debut feature, which emerged from Park City with a directing prize, a Fox Searchlight distribution deal and rave reviews for Elizabeth Olsen’s lead performance as a lost soul on the run from a violent cult.

Handily overcoming any potentially unflattering associations with her older sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley, the fledgling actress gives a haunted, complex, almost completely interior performance that could land her a slot in the competitive actress race. Longer shots for thesping honors are Olsen’s co-stars Sarah Paulson, brittle and emotional as the protagonist’s concerned older sister, and John Hawkes, as imposing here as a Charles Manson-esque figure as he was in his Oscar-nominated turn in “Winter’s Bone.”

Uncommonly assured for a first-time filmmaker, Durkin may still be considered too green for a directing nomination. But his talent for understatement could find favor with the writers’ branch: Expanding on his similarly fest-friendly short “Mary Last Seen,” the script drifts eerily between two converging timeframes assembled with the cunning, snap-together precision of a trap in the woods.

Release date: Oct. 21
Fox Searchlight
Read the Variety review