One of the great ironies of deprogramming is that it attempts to free people from mental bondage by placing them in physical bondage. It substitutes one form of abuse for another, and the message the deprogrammer unavoidably sends is a peculiar one: “I have taken you against your will – now let me help you be free.” Riley Stearns' directorial debut Faults is neither an attack on deprogramming nor a defense of it, but simply an observation of its inherent problems, benefits and hypocrisies. The film recognizes the horrible danger of cults, but also suggests that the sort of thinking that leads people to cults is far more widespread than you might suspect.

Ansel Roth (Leland Orser, Taken) used to be one of the most respected – or at least most well-known - deprogramming specialists in the country. He had a popular television show, a best-selling book and a comfortable life. Now, all of that is gone. He speaks to small crowds at rinky-dink hotels, trying to scrape up enough money to pay off the sizable debt he owes to his manager Terry (Jon Gries, Napoleon Dynamite). He sleeps in his car, steals food when he can get away with it and makes little effort to mask the fact that his heart isn't in his work anymore.

Then, Ansel gets an offer that has the potential to turn his life around. Paul (Chris Ellis, The Dark Knight Rises) and Evelyn (Beth Grant, Donnie Darko) are deeply concerned about their adult daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). It seems Claire has joined a cult of sorts called “Faults,” and they're willing to pay Ansel a great deal of money if he can “fix” Claire. Ansel agrees: he arranges for Claire to be kidnapped and taken to a hotel to begin the deprogramming process.

In one early sequence, we hear a few minutes of one of Ansel's underwhelming seminars. As he speaks about the danger of having your life controlled by someone else, we're given a shot of a child being dragged out of the room by his mother. Many of us are raised with the notion that having someone else tell us what to do, think and feel is normal. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that so many of us find a substitute for that alternately comforting and restrictive parental guidance when we reach adulthood. We find our gods and ask them to lead us (sometimes even as we protest the notion that we're being led by anything other than our own free will).

These notions linger in the background (and occasionally the foreground) of Faults, a consistently engaging (and occasionally funny) film that tends to hold its cards pretty close to the vest. We know what kind of man Ansel is, but it takes a long time to figure out how much control he has over the situation he's gotten himself into. This “Faults” quickly reveals itself to be a strangely unique beast; a way of looking at the world he doesn't really have a strong counterargument for. He digs into his tried-and-true techniques, but the results they produce tend to be mixed at best. Are Claire's beliefs really that deep-rooted? Or is she playing him somehow? I'm still not sure that the answers make a whole lot of sense on a practical level, but they're certainly surprising.

Orser is one of those “hey, it's that guy!” actors that you've seen in everything, and this is one of his richest roles. He perfectly embodies a man who is a mere shadow of his former self. Every so often, you hear the sort of commanding confidence in his voice that he must have displayed regularly when he was a celebrity. Now, that confidence often gives way to flustered anger, sheepish embarrassment or wounded sadness. The assignment seems to be simultaneously rebuilding Ansel and deconstructing him, and the question of which side will reach the finish line first is a genuinely suspenseful one.

Good as Orser is, Winstead (Stearn's real-life wife) has the film's richest and most challenging role. As Claire attempts to work through her beliefs and memories, we see faint flickers of different people – the zombie-like cult member, the vulnerable daughter, the uncertain rational thinker – rising to the surface. It's a remarkably diverse and subtle performance that slowly begins to consume the film whole. Some of the other supporting players go a little too broad (Beth Grant's talents aren't put to particularly good use here, and I'm on the fence about Lance Reddick's wobbly accent), but the two central performances are pitched at just the right level.

This is a simply-constructed, low-budget film, but it's immediately obvious that Stearns knows what he's doing behind the camera. He has good instincts for when to cut away from a scene for comic effect, and when to apply a close-up for dramatic effect. What's here may be relatively simple, but every detail seems carefully considered, from the wardrobe choices to the hotel room furniture. The storytelling is commanding, even if the endgame isn't entirely satisfying. It's a debut that reminds me of Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple – a tight, absorbing little thriller that judiciously applies dark humor and suggests that the filmmaker may be capable of achieving great things. Keep an eye on this guy.


Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Year: 2015