I admired writer/director Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up Philip, but one of the common complaints made about that film was that the characters were simply too unlikable to spend much time with. Those who felt that way should probably steer clear of Queen of Earth, Perry's unnervingly intense follow-up. The director is operating in a different genre this time around – this a rural psychological thriller that often seems to be unfolding in a heightened reality, while Listen Up Philip was a naturalistic New York-based character study – but there's a similar portion of striking emotional cruelty (both intentional and otherwise).
The most intriguing portion of Listen Up Philip was its midsection, which featured Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) as the title character's weary, put-upon girlfriend who began to flourish in her abrasive boyfriend's absence. Queen of Earth sees Moss taking the reverse version of that journey, offering a (non-linear) portrait of a woman's transformation from contented happiness to crippling depression (and perhaps even insanity).
The film begins on a particularly sour note: Catherine (Moss) has just learned that her longtime boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley, The Sacrament) is dumping her. Following this painful prologue, the film begins jumping back and forth in time. In the present, we see Catherine spending time at a lake house owned by her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice). The two get together at the lake house annually, and at the moment it seems the perfect place for Catherine to work through her emotions in peace (she's also grieving the recent death of her father). The film also provides a handful of scenes set one year earlier, when Catherine and James visited the lake house together.
In the flashback scenes, Catherine is radiant: her bright smile rarely leaves her face, and in every other shot she seems to be looking at James with unwavering adoration. This development irritates Virginia, who dislikes the quality time she's supposed to be spending with Catherine being disrupted by this bland interloper. Virginia's caustic offhand remarks are laced with potent venom, but they hardly seem to bother Catherine: her love for James serves as a sort of emotional forcefield that prevents negativity from getting to her.
Back in the present, Catherine is in a much darker place. Virginia's occasional criticisms or jabs are far milder and less mean-spirited this time around, but they pack a much sharper punch. In one early scene, we see Virginia eating a small pack of potato chips, and the crinkling of the wrapper is so loud that it overwhelms everything else on the soundtrack. It's the first sign that Catherine may be alarmingly vulnerable, but that truth isn't immediately obvious to Virginia. Things really start to deteriorate with the arrival of Rich (Patrick Fugit, Almost Famous), the smirking neighbor who occasionally pops by to make snarky remarks and indulge in a little hanky-panky with Virginia.
Perry is an avid cinephile, and he draws heavily on the psychological thrillers of the '60s and '70s. Movie buffs will see a few shades of early Polanski (Cul-du-Sac, Repulsion), early De Palma (Sisters, Obsession), mid-period Bergman (Persona, The Silence) and more than a few shades of Woody Allen imitating Bergman (Interiors, September). The old-school effect is certainly intentional, and the film wears its retro vibe on its sleeve with 16mm cinematography, strikingly old-fashioned credit fonts and an unnervingly atonal Keegan DeWitt score that conjures memories of John Williams' unconventional music for Robert Altman's Images.
In other words, there's a lot of stuff here that feels familiar, but Perry's own unique, insightfully sharp-edged voice prevents the film from being a mere cocktail of influences. His characters have a tendency to phrase things in a way that leaves a mark, with Fugit's Rich in particular standing out as a man with a knack for casually sprinkling salt into a wound at any given moment. Catherine is on the receiving end of most of the film's barbs, and they affect her so deeply that we begin to become convinced that all sorts of horrible things might be just around the corner: a complete detachment from reality, or a murder, or a suicide, or all three.
Moss' performance is yet another demonstration of her considerable talent; a raw-nerve portrait of ever-building paranoia and despair. She has two monologues that rank among the year's most memorable scenes. The first is part of an impressive, intimate single-take sequence featuring introspective reflections from both Moss and Waterston (who does fine, subtle work in the film's less showy lead role). The second is a remarkably vicious kiss-off speech; the sort of words everyone dreams of speaking to their least-favorite person but never works up the courage to actually say. It's a tremendous piece of work – fierce and fragile and naked.
Queen of Earth is, it should be noted, a thriller that has little interest in cheap thrills. It's opaque and challenging, and doesn't offer easy explanations of what's real, what isn't and what it all means. None of this prevents it from being a tremendously unsettling psychological thriller, but it's likely to fare better with more adventurous viewers. I was struck by the way it shifts perspective frequently, allowing us to alternately see Virginia and Catherine the way they see each other. The scenes that are presented from Catherine's point of view reveal an acute insight into the way depression works: the way small irritations become unbearable weights, the way casual slights become destructive cruelty and the way the darkest alleys of depressions lead to a world from which there may be no return. By the time Virginia really, truly sees her, it may be too late.
Queen of Earth
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2015