Queen of Earth / Alex Ross Perry / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Unique textures and style; Nervy lead performances; Editing
Side Effects: Occasional heavy-handedness and histrionics

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[Queen of Earth is open now in limited release, and is also available on streaming platforms.]

A genuinely fresh and bracing film, Queen of Earth further heralds the arrival of an important voice in American cinema. Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to last year’s hilarious and bitter intellectual comedy Listen Up Philip is ostensibly about depression, or perhaps a destructive friendship, but it’s much more potent as a barbed psychological examination of how people struggle to define themselves vis-a-vis each other.

The two combatants of this tacit tet-a-tet are Catherine and Virginia, played in two excellent but very different performances by Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Catherine arrives at Virginia’s lake house to rest and recover from her depression after the death of her father and a nasty breakup, the film’s first scene, offering the distinctly unflattering but already-iconic closeup of Moss’s tearstained face. Catherine visited the lake house the year before too, but the dynamic was distinctly different. Despite niceties both genuine and feigned, there’s a palpable edge to this friendship, a sense of competition and condescension that we understand has a long and troubled history. As things get worse and worse for Catherine, Perry and his two actresses sink their teeth into this nervy and grungy emotional mood piece.

To evoke this unique mood, Perry embraces a range of influences and tones, but emerges with a style entirely his own. There are shades of Repulsion, Persona and Interiors, but also undercurrents that reminded me of pulpy 70s horror like Bay of Blood or Friday the 13th. Further, Queen of Earth proves that yes, definitively, shooting on film can make ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD when handled delicately and reverently by the right crew. There’s a warmth and softness to the filmic image, but also, Perry understands, a jagged edge and a nervous twitch that accentuates the tension of the drama. The exteriors of the rippling lake and criss-crossing tree limbs are luminously photographed, just to the point of overexposure, while interiors scenes are staged to make the most of the location and the blocking of characters within the shot.

In concert with but disconnected from the textures and colors of Queen of Earth‘s palette, Perry’s precise camerawork and editing (aided by cinematographer Sean Price Williams and editor Robert Greene) elevate the film. It’s amazing to see such a grasp of the capacity of film to generate and manipulate tones and emotions from such a young filmmaker. Two scenes in particular, both simple exchanges of dialog on the page, demonstrate Perry’s command of cinematic language.

In the first, Perry films Catherine venting to Virginia in a single take. She opens up about her weakness and codependence to men, and Virginia returns with her own story, ostensibly to commiserate, but chiefly designed as a put-down. Virginia understands Catherine’s pain, you see, because she too has experienced clinginess, but from the other side. She knew a guy who pined after her and wouldn’t leave her alone, so Virginia can identify with Catherine’s plight. To draw out the subtle turns and subversions contained within the dialog and performances of this scene, Perry keeps the single shot in a tight closeup, using minute pans and changes in focus to shift from one actress to the other and back again. I’ve never been so aware—without being distracted—of the power of rack focusing to direct the viewer into identification with different characters, or catch a telling gesture by either the speaker or the listener.

The second key scene, equally small and humble, happens in flashback. (Throughout the film, Perry jumps into the past, pivoting gracefully but abruptly like a shifting gears on a transmission.) Catherine and her boyfriend accidentally interrupt Virginia making out with a neighbor (a delightfully smarmy Patrick Fugit) and are awkwardly introduced. But Virginia’s sexuality triggers jealousy in Catherine and an innocent conversation quickly turns into a fight. Here, Perry shows amazing facility with montage, perfectly capturing the pace and continuity of this verbal escalation, but also gleefully twisting the knife at key moments by cutting intuitively around the conversation, particularly to the two men observing in nervous silence.

But, of course, all the skill in the world would render the drama inert without equally masterful performances, and both Moss’s and Waterston’s performances are committed and neatly textured, suggesting a deep past to their relationship that colors what we see in the film. While Moss’s is the bigger performance (and her character sometimes a bit histrionic), both performers are equally comfortable commanding a scene or reacting to it; there’s a perfect give and take to their onscreen chemistry that, together with Perry’s editing, vaults the viewer’s attention back and forth. Taken together, the pair is deliciously neurotic, and the film succeeds by lighting a long fuse between them and watching it slowly sizzle.

Indeed, it’s within the strange contours of this relationship that Perry finds his central idea: that Catherine and Virginia are two sides of the same coin. The balance of power shifts, but the same emotions are at play in both women. In this way, the film isn’t about depression or even friendship, but rather the relationship between crippling codependence on other people and an equally unhealthy and antisocial independence. Perhaps Perry hits these themes a bit too hard at times, but he arrives at a fascinating portrait of one problem—or maybe even one person—via these two different women, and he does so with an incredible and forward-looking style and will hopefully make its mark in the otherwise tepid landscape of American independent film.

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