by Jacob Mouradian
Solitude may allow you to “get away from it all”, but that doesn’t really help if you’re the one you need to get away from. Such is the case in Alex Ross Perry’s fourth feature film, Queen of Earth, a compelling examination on wrestling with your identity to the point of a psychological breakdown.
The film stars Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame as the distraught Catherine (“With a C”, her character vehemently remarks), a young woman in desperate need of some R&R. Having lost her artist father–whom she worked for as a secretary–and broken up with her long-term boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) in a short span of time she reaches out to her old friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), looking for a week of rehabilitation out at her family’s lakeside cabin.
Though Catherine and Virginia are childhood friends their relationship has since become strained, and, regardless of the accommodations they allow themselves, they always end up at each other’s throats. Not helping the situation is Rich (Patrick Fugit), a friend and casual lover of Virginia, whose mere presence further puts Catherine on-edge. Over the course of the week, her depression and anxiety spiral out of control, pushing her identity crisis to unhealthy and dangerous levels.
The film definitely has an out-of-time feel to its beat. The technology that the characters use–while very limited in its on-screen portrayal–seems dated, particularly the big, clunky-looking cordless phone that Catherine uses to talk to an unknown companion for hours on end. Same goes for the sense of architecture of Virginia’s cabin as well as the style of fashion seen on everyone else–it could either be read as refreshingly modern or retro-chic.
And of course all of this is further bolstered by the filmmaking technology at play. Sean Price Williams’ 16mm cinematography gives the film its grainy look, with lots of contrast created seemingly only by natural light, not to mention the camera’s floating movement that pans and zooms in on characters with such mitigated ease. Keegan DeWitt’s ethereal, woodwind-heavy score provides a lot of creepiness as well, as its constant yet understated presence provides a viewer, or even the characters themselves, with a calming moment to think.
To be frank, Moss is nothing short of brilliant. To watch her character unravel as her madness sets in is as compelling as it is horrifying, heightened by the little tics and other neurosis-induced expressions to go along with her insomnia-inspired dishevelment. Her character is a set of contradictions and struggles; socially privileged yet mentally afflicted, a talented individual who’s kept in nepotism’s shadow, aware of her own issues but not those of others. To watch her fight to keep up such an identity without unraveling herself is fascinating.
Observing her interactions with everyone else is as fundamentally amusing as it is perplexing. Waterston’s performance is subtle as she embodies the same contradictions as Moss’ Catherine but exudes herself with a bit more confidence and control over them. Fugit portrays the same sort of confidence as Waterston but maybe even too much of it, perhaps even bordering on being “cocky” (his name is “Rich”, coming from Richard, a name with another nickname that is, well, “Dick”). Or he could be mirroring Catherine’s self-perception and thus she sees him as even more of a threat than he actually is (with that approach, his nickname “Rich” could be symbolic of monetary status, something about her own self that she very reluctantly learns to acknowledge).
However, with the exception of Virginia and Rich the other supporting characters come and go from the narrative on a whim. What’s even more strange is that they’re usually people who–as far as the viewers know–have been visible only to Catherine, and existing for only two purposes: to criticize Virginia and her family or only to be a general nuisance. Sometimes Catherine entertains their contemplations while other times she either completely ignores them or nonchalantly threatens to murder them. None of these characters have more than one initial appearance and, when they do, Catherine is either irritated and/or shocked, making us further question her own stability.
This all serves to the dream-like surrealism that Perry establishes with this film. Harkening back to films such as the 1977 Robert Altman film 3 Women, both in its nightmarish tone and its focus on two troubled heroines, Queen of Earth is as much a character piece as it is a delve into the unknown. And like both of those films, therein lies its problem. Like life itself, there are a lot of issues at play–social issues, class struggles, identity crises, complicated relationships–and like a dream or a nightmare, it blends all of these things together without really taking a convicted look any one in particular whereas 3 Women more efficiently balances all of its themes out. It makes sense from a metaphorical viewpoint but it also leaves the viewer with an unsatisfied wanting, like waking up from a troubled sleep and attempting to grab hold of all the mental ephemera before they vanish. It leaves a groggy feeling of more to be desired.
Though this should not undermine the film on the whole, as it is still a startling portrait of psychosis with terrific performances all around. Perry’s direction is terrifically steady and reserved. In addition, Moss’ turn as a tormented socialite is one of the best performances of the past year. It’s at times uncomfortable and doesn’t always make sense, but given its creepy dreamscape and surreal bravura it is more than worth its REM-cycle length.