CANNES, France -- Inevitably, the handful of small American films that make it here get a lot of attention. Europeans seek them out to demonstrate that they appreciate American independent cinema more than the morbidly obese, brain-dead Yanks do (which is at least partly true) and Americans flaunt them eagerly as proof that our filmmakers are producing something besides "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl at World's End on Hella Stranger Tides," or whatever it's called. This year's winner of the "Blue Valentine"/"Wendy and Lucy" overseas achievement award looks to be the creepy, powerful, mid-budget thriller "Martha Marcy May Marlene," screening here in the Certain Regard competition. It's anchored by a highly convincing lead performance from Elizabeth Olsen, 21-year-old sister of the formerly famous Olsen twins.
Olsen plays the title character, but she doesn't have all those names at the same time. Since Fox Searchlight will release "Martha Marcy May Marlene" this fall in the United States, this isn't the time to write a full review or go into too much plot detail. Let's just say that her name is Martha, but she's spent a good deal of time living in a communal farmhouse in upstate New York where she became known as Marcy May, and where whichever young woman answers phone calls from the outside always identifies herself as Marlene Lewis. Yes, it's that kind of communal farmhouse, presided over by a wiry, charismatic guy called Patrick (the amazing John Hawkes, of "Winter's Bone"). Although the setting is contemporary, I'm pretty sure that writer-director Sean Durkin is thinking both of Charles Manson's "family" and of the Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnappers of Patty Hearst in the 1970s, who did indeed hide on a farm in the Catskills for a while.
After fleeing that happy home (for reasons that gradually become clear), the disoriented Martha crashes with her estranged yuppie sister and brother-in-law, nicely rendered by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy, and that's when things start to get even weirder. Olsen's performance as a young woman who seems to have lost touch with her own identity and perhaps with objective reality is one of the best I've seen this year, and Durkin's immensely intelligent script hints at the idea that the difference between Patrick's form of brainwashing and the more acceptable version Martha's sister seeks to impose is a question of degree. Beginning in an almost idyllic mode and gradually ratcheting up the tension, Durkin arrives at an unsettling conclusion worthy of Michael Haneke, in which Martha's troubled internal state and the real dangers around her seem to merge. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" could be a dark-horse awards contender in several categories, but more important, it's a dark, intelligent, beautifully crafted shocker that will burrow its way into your unconscious and stay there.