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Tribulations 

Two new films consider faith and deception.

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Which is easier to believe: what your eyes see or what the eyes of others do not?

Curtis does not seem to have any problems. He is a quiet, unassuming Midwesterner with a gorgeous wife, an adorable daughter and a steady job that pays well and offers good benefits at a time when many have no job at all.

But then the storm comes. The sky fills with black clouds. They form into cones, like tornadoes, but they seem to travel in packs, like wolves or like the wrath of God. When the rain falls, it is thick and viscous, “like fresh motor oil.”

The storms first come to Curtis in his dreams. Later, he begins to see them while awake. He cleans out a disused storm cellar on the property, then builds onto it. He takes risks — with his job, with their savings — putting his family in financial jeopardy to ward off physical, or perhaps supernatural, harm.

But is the storm real?

Curtis’ mother is a paranoid schizophrenic, and Curtis is the age now that she was when she went so far around the bend that there was no returning home. He begins to worry that he is going crazy, but he buys gas masks anyway.

Curtis’ wife is understanding, trusting and resolute. Her steadfastness makes this less a family drama than a personal, internal exploration of trust and faith and uncertainty — and less faith in the hand of God than the soft, insistent voice between our ears.

The film’s only stumble comes at the end, when the young, virtuosic writer/director Jeff Nichols gets a little too concrete in his assessment of Curtis’ character. That’s a shame, but it shouldn’t detract from the preceding two hours, which were a dogged, enthralling meditation on matters for which there can be no certainty.

Where do we find family: in those with whom we share genes or those with whom we share a worldview?

Martha’s life is all problems. Her mom died when she was young. Her sister was older — away at college — and so she went to live with an aunt. The woman was old, and smelled strange, and didn’t understand Martha.

We are never told how she gets to the farm, but it’s clear why she has come. Her eyes gleam bright at the possibility of finding a place among these interesting people and Patrick, their charismatic leader.

We are never told exactly why Martha runs away from the farm, either, though there are some possibilities. The night her mentor Katie drugged her so Patrick could “cleanse” (rape) her. The night she did the same to another new girl. The night they broke into that man’s house.

When Martha runs away, it is to her sister, Lucy, but Lucy doesn’t listen. She doesn’t treat Martha the way Patrick did. Patrick made her feel powerful. Lucy makes her feel worthless. Martha acts out against Lucy’s controlling hand. Patrick manipulated her, too, and did some awful things, but at least he made Martha feel like she was in control.

Martha’s time on the farm and the time with her sister play out in parallel, each revealing a little more about what propels the destructive, coercive cycle from family to cult to family again.

One night, wanting to feel special again, Martha calls the farm, but gets scared and hangs up. She spends the rest of the film in fear that the phone call was a mistake. We spend the rest of the film — right up until the harrowing final frame — worrying about that, too.

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