What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Alex Ross Perry
Produced by: Alex Ross Perry, Joe Swanberg, Elisabeth Moss, Adam Piotrowicz
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil
Running Time (in min.): 90 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Official Selection of the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival
Never in my life have I wanted to see a Winnie the Pooh movie more than I do at this very moment.
My excitement stems from some now-old news I read about the filmmaker Alex Ross Perry just after watching his latest film, Queen of Earth. I’ve still not seen Impolex, Ross Perry’s first feature-length film, though it is on my “list” whenever it returns to commercial availability. At the San Francisco-based Medium Rare TV in 2011, I received a screener of his second film, the brilliant black-and-white incest odyssey The Color Wheel. Co-written with Carlen Altman, whom my colleague Kevin Robinson interviewed around then, the movie shocked and warmed me with its nastiness and verve – “Ah,” I thought, “a like mind.” Then in late 2013, I interviewed the filmmaker David Lowery, who was gearing up to co-produce (with his business partners, Toby Halbrooks and James Johnston) Ross Perry’s third feature while promoting his own amazing film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake, for Disney, is in post-production.) Based on his recommendation, I waited eagerly for what would become Listen Up Philip, which premiered to huge acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and became one of that year’s best-reviewed pictures.
Counting Queen, Ross Perry is four movies deep on one of this country’s most enervating and promising young careers, each new work expressing in equal measure the filmmaker’s impeccable attention to visual detail and a mouth as toxically sour as Noah Baumbach’s, if Baumbach had just downed a half-gallon of fresh lemon juice, chewed some Sour Patch Kids, and finished them off with a chaser of Drano. In the new film, Ross Perry, who wrote, directed, and produced (with Joe Swanberg, Elisabeth Moss, and Adam Piotrowicz), has proved that the key to genius is to find others equally equipped to accomplish your vision. Thanks to his knack for collaboration, Queen of Earth is a virtually spotless psychological thriller that surrounds the viewer with aura, the kind that fills each frame with invisible but nonetheless poisonous wisps. It is, I feel, the filmmaker’s and his collaborators’ first masterwork together.
Its story pivots on the behavior of two noxious women, Catherine, played by Elisabeth Moss, and Virginia, played by Katherine Waterston. Scions of white privilege, they are “vacationing” at a lake house owned by Virginia’s parents, but the place is a PoMo hell – all sharp angles, narrow loft hallways, and fragile glass tables, it screams “domestic violence brought to you by Philip Johnson.” Catherine is hiding out from the world after her artist-father’s suicide, as well as her debilitating break-up with a prick of the hippest order (Kentucker Audley, perfect).
Meanwhile “Ginny,” as she is sometimes called to her own chagrin, keeps receiving visits from a sneering, entitled neighbor named Rich (Patrick Fugit, of Gone Girl and Wristcutters: A Love Story.) This sharp quadrangle of attitudes has sent Catherine spiraling, such that she’s almost completely unhinged by the time she decides to take a rest from the world. The first time she enters the house, I instantly thought of the vase-smashing in Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978) (what a coincidence to discover that Ross Perry cited it as one of his influences here), and felt my breath coming in cold, short, and sharp.
Not quite sisters – closer to doppelgangers, really – Ginny and Catherine are the kinds of best friends who hate each other as strongly as they love, constantly undercutting and brutalizing one another’s self-worth in an effort to maintain self-balance. That’s one of the meanings in the picture’s title, “Queen of Earth”: Catherine looms as the largest bully here, a force-of-hostility made vital and unbearable (to me, at least) by Moss’s extraordinary performance.
So richly made is this portrait of a breakdown that I found myself with a question for Moss: what good is all that natural kindness etched into your features, and the humanity that radiates in your performances in Virgin, Get Him to the Greek, and Listen Up Philip, if it’s so easily disposed of? And then I realized: that’s exactly the brilliance of the role, and of the title. Catherine imagines her struggle to hold the crumbling interior together as a noble, artful, perhaps even heroic deed – regal, even. She sees herself, especially in the wake of her renowned artist-father’s passing (which may have been from unnatural causes), at the top of the psychological and social heap. But the physical domain is more truly Virginia’s; and Rich’s/Fugit’s constant presence feels like an attempt at claim-jumping Catherine’s imagined terrain.
As terrifying as the performances, Anna Bak-Kvapil’s production design makes the lakeside getaway look like the Amityville house by way of Ingmar Bergman. Another reminiscence: in a magnificent long shot of Moss and Waterston “frozen” in the downstairs living room, I recalled the famous “Chokey” room from Danny DeVito’s aggressive Matilda adaptation, which haunted my childhood. The shot in Queen comes from the outstanding work of DP Sean Price Williams (whose photography on two other films, Heaven Knows What and Christmas, Again stands with the year’s most accomplished), a nightmarish ensemble of trembling close-ups, dim-lit canted angles, and hallucinogenic imagery. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have never seen anything as hypnotic as the Escherian image of pinkish, bracken lake water being paddled through in the late evening.
Only those familiar with the European masters of art cinema could scorn Williams’s and Ross Perry’s audiovisual control as “commonplace,” for the film’s lineage is only a small segment of its real accomplishment. For Ross Perry, now in line to write and direct a Pooh project, Queen of Earth represents viable commercial promise, evidenced by a control of actors’ direction and of filmic homage (to Allen, Bergman, Tarr) that does not impede, but rather exposes, the creeping dread, the abject beauty, and the cruel pithiness (the qualities that make, for example, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin a great team) for which today’s audiences thirst. Ross Perry, Williams, the composer Keegan DeWitt, editor Robert Green, and Bak-Kvapil could all easily be attached, together or separately, to the Millennium trilogy as to a Vertigo remake. After all, Hitchcock, Bass, and Hermann have been gone a long time.