Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: Queen of Earth

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Elisabeth Moss gives an unsettling performance in Alex Ross Perry's "Queen of Earth," a psychological drama that plays like a horror film, as a young woman suffering from a recent break-up who spends a week in a secluded cabin with a semi-estranged friend (played by Katherine Waterston, of "Inherent Vice").

The role is a departure for Moss - who I'll always think of as Peggy Olsen, her "Mad Men" character - and she proves that she can take on challenging material. So, it's a little disappointing that Perry's film does not exactly match her commitment.

The director made his debut last year with "Listen Up Philip," a sardonic dramedy about an arrogant writer that had many thinking that the filmmaker was aiming to be a protege of Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson. But with "Queen of Earth," he heads in a completely different direction, but with mostly diminishing returns.

The film opens with one of its best scenes as we witness a close-up of Moss's tear-stained and eye shadow-smeared face during a break-up with her boyfriend. The actress appears to go through all five stages of grief in a matter of several minutes and the performance immediately hooks you. The film, on the other hand, takes much longer to get moving and, ultimately, isn't as effective as its lead performance.

Moss's Catherine joins old pal Virginia (Waterston) at the quiet, backwoods cabin owned by Virginia's family. The trip is seemingly meant as a healing one, but it is quickly upended by the arrival of Rich (Patrick Fugit), a man with whom Virginia had some sort of affair the summer before. From the start, Catherine and Rich make it clear that they do not like each other and their taunting of one another quickly becomes, well, a little inappropriate.

Meanwhile, we witness flashbacks from the year before when Catherine and her now ex-boyfriend visited the cabin and Virginia and Rich met for the first time. One of the problems with the film is that we are led to believe that while Catherine is in the midst of a psychological breakdown in the present, it is Virginia who was suffering the year before. But this is only hinted late in the film and there is no evidence of Virginia's fragile emotional state in any of the flashbacks.

Also, "Queen of Earth" ultimately does not add up to much in its final sequences. Moss is asked to increasingly act more and more disturbed - and she does so with aplomb - but I'm not sure that we get any better sense of who Catherine and Virginia are and why their relationship has become fractured. The picture uses eerie music and hauntingly creepy shots of sunsets and early mornings to create atmosphere, but it's all used to give off the feeling that we're watching a horror movie, rather than a drama about two friends. In other words, it favors style over substance.

So, while the performances in "Queen of Earth" are solid, the film itself feels a little lost. There's a sense of tension throughout, but it's difficult to parse exactly what we're supposed to feel tense about. Moss is a wonderful actress and Waterston is a star on the rise and it's always a pleasure to watch them. I'd just love to see some material that gives them more to work with than this film does.

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