QUEEN OF EARTH
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 8/26/15 (limited); 9/4/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 4, 2015
"Well, we should switch places—see how we feel then," Virginia (Katherine Waterston) tells her best friend Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) after a disappointing vacation a year ago. It's a loaded statement in a film about two characters who have grown apart from each other, either because they are too much alike or because they are complete opposites. It's tough to tell which one of those descriptions of their relationship is the case, since the two women do switch places in terms of circumstances and personalities. We know when the circumstances swap. The questions seem to be at what point in Queen of Earth that their personalities switch and why that occurs.
After one viewing of writer/director Alex Ross Perry's film, one might feel as if there is some vital piece of that puzzle missing. A second viewing might not exactly reveal that missing piece, but the final picture is much clearer.
It does not matter if we do, eventually will, or even are able to figure out how these characters behave and why they do so. Queen of Earth is still a dense examination of the tenuous bond between two people who have spent a lifetime together—far too long for these two, we suspect. The film is a minefield of pent-up resentments and long-standing disappointments, outright lies and crafty deceits, insults of both the passive-aggressive and direct varieties, escalating madness and conflicted emotions, and the realization that—no matter what might be happening behind the scenes or in these characters' heads—these people have no idea what productive human interaction is.
These characters deserve each other or, barring that, no one at all. There is no in between. When it comes to those human interactions and relationships, such as family or love or friendship, it is all or nothing with these two.
The film opens with a tight, uncomfortable close-up of Catherine's face as her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) says why he's breaking up with her. Her makeup is smeared from tears, and as he explains that they have become too reliant on each other for their relationship to be healthy, Catherine's face discovers new forms of contortions to go along with the emotional distress.
Moss is fantastic here, although the opening scene—in which she goes from accusatory anger to pleading for this conversation's end to rage at the final moments without missing a beat—is only a taste of what this character and this performance have to offer. The actress presents a startling representation of depression and possible insanity, before we're left wondering if there's an entirely different kind of performance happening here.
Sometime after the break-up, Catherine and Virginia meets at the lakeside home owned by Virginia's family for a week of "exile." We also learn that Catherine's father, a famous New York City artist, committed suicide a few months ago. She says she can't stop thinking about it.
As Catherine's condition seems to worsen, the two women experience flashbacks to a similar exile a year ago, when it was Virginia who had recently experienced some kind of trouble. She wanted some alone time with her best friend, but Catherine brought James. Virginia wasn't happy about that, and (Is it "so"?) in the present, Rich (Patrick Fugit), a guy whose parents own a house on the lake, stops by to visit often at a time when Catherine wants to be with Virginia.
Rich doesn't like Catherine, and he doesn't hesitate in mocking her or laughing about her behind her back. He also calls Virginia by her nickname "Ginny," which she only allows of her closest friends. Catherine scolds him about that, but wait a moment. What does Catherine call her supposed best friend when they're sitting by the lake?
Everything we need to know about Catherine and Virginia arrives in a scene featuring a pair of monologues in which each character details a failed relationship. There are two things of note here. The first is the content of those stories. Catherine tells of a time when a man, whom she had pined for, returned to her for a relationship after one with another woman ended. He went back to ignoring her after some time. Virginia recalls a man who expected their relationship to be more than she wanted. She ended that one.
Catherine is the one who, like Virginia's old flame, wants more, while Virginia, like Catherine's temporary beau, is the dismissive type. She even brags in one flashback about "purging" her life of "enemies." Catherine is horrified by the concept. Throughout the film's flashbacks, she believes she is the only adult in the room—cleaning up after others and scolding Virginia for being a layabout. Now note how her room is a mess in the present and also how she is the one who has no plans for the immediate future.
The second thing about the scene with the monologues relates to form. Perry captures it in a one-take, in which the camera passes back and forth between the two actresses (The naturalistic cinematography is by Sean Price Williams). For about half of each woman's monologue, we see the other woman's face. Virginia smiles and silently chuckles at Catherine's story. Catherine's visage remains a stone-faced frown. We're learning about these characters not only from what they say but also in how they react. Waterston's performance is the less showy of the two, but that's because it relies more on reactions. In that regard, her performance is a refined complement to Moss'.
While the film might seem like an actors' showcase (It is that, too), to deem it exclusively as such would undermine Perry's command of tone and structure. It grows increasingly claustrophobic and eerie, as the dissonant strings of Keegan DeWitt's score play off Catherine's increasing instability (There's the suggestion of a possible murder at one point). It's simultaneously chilling and unpredictable.
The flashbacks keep us on our toes, too. Are they objective presentations of reality or subjective remembrances? If they're the latter, whose memories are they? The present itself eventually becomes a nightmarish jumble, too, especially during a party scene in which we think we're witnessing Catherine's warped perspective of events, only to realize that might only be partially true.
All of the questions, apparently, are resolved at the end of Queen of Earth, but even then, new ones arise. At least one character and most certainly Perry are engaging in some cunning misdirection here, and it's a stimulating thing to experience.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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