Madness and dysfunctional or emotionally abusive friendships in film have become a popular focus in modern dramas or comedies, particularly female driven vehicles like Thirteen, Mean Girls, The Craft and Jawbreaker. Usually there’s a certain amount of contention, double-crossing, backstabbing, ruthless emotional cruelty or just plain vindictiveness that fuels either the one-sided or co-dependent relationship with a certain lack of moral fiber or emotional health. While some of the aforementioned examples often fit in to familial genre pictures, the place where the nastiest, most hateful arenas of one-up gamesmanship seem to play out with increasing frequency and spitefulness is the indie mumblecore subgenre pioneered by Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater, Kelly Reichardt and Mark Duplass. Often minimalist in form, working within a smaller budget and concerning a small group of characters and their interpersonal relations, the mumblecore film functions somewhat like the Dogme 95 movement which is less interested in polished gloss than working intimately with actors in an attempt to get to the heart of the story. Up to this point I thought the most awful examples of the spiteful and self-involved misfits (or miscreants, depending on your point of view) came from the likes of Greenberg, The Royal Tenenbaums, Inside Llewyn Davis and most notably Listen Up, Philip.
That changed, however, after viewing writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s truly horrific, unsettling and unbearably tense study of psychological breakdown, Queen of Earth. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterson who easily give two of the finest performances of the year, it’s a terribly uncomfortable chamber piece that sadly still remains beneath the radars of staunch cinephiles who think they’ve seen every realistic portrait of madness depicted onscreen. The scariest notion surrounding Queen of Earth isn’t so much about the slippery slope it’s poor and tormented protagonist slides down, but the degree with which we can influence the psychological stability (or instability) of those closest to us. Exceedingly simple in scale yet almost indefinite in its scab picking, the film concerns two lifelong friends, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), who are locked in such an acrimonious co-dependent relationship you wonder why these two ever wound up becoming soul mates in the first place. Told from the unreliable perspective of Catherine, who seems to be drifting further away from reality and emotional stability in the wake of her father’s death, from beginning to end these two seem to be out for one another’s blood with a palpable sense of danger and disquiet radiating through the air. Driven almost entirely by dialogue, with each pushing the other’s button just a little harder with each and every word, it’s a tension filled all-consuming war zone whose thick stench inevitably affects any and all who come near it.
Much like Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, the film is less interested in solving the psychological breakdown than it is in dropping us right into the vortex of the crumbling psyche, replete with many scenes where we’re not sure how many of the surrounding characters are actually trying to sink their teeth into Catherine or how much is merely her own paranoia being projected unto everyone around her. Some of the strongest scenes consist of Moss and Waterson simply talking to one another in long takes, as the camera seems to float back and forth between the two spewing out their hate filled dialogue at one another. While shot in soft, painterly Super 16mm by Sean Price Williams with many scenic location shots of the lake and remote cabin the friends spend most of their time in and aided by an unnerving ambient score soaked in dread and sadness by Keegan DeWitt, the film is anchored completely by Moss and Waterston who seem to both trade sides in terms of their emotional stability and their ability to reduce the other to a basket case. Much like Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, Alex Ross Perry is a firm believer in the power and haunted terror of the long take as his camera gazes upon the cold and calculating face of Waterston whose eyes slowly seem to grow out of her head in one particularly confrontational scene where we’re not sure how much Virginia wants to help Catherine or just enjoy watching her suffer. Just when we think we’re onto this dysfunctional duo, the film again switches sides such as a heated confessional from Catherine seems to raise the eyebrows of Virginia and their mutual neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit). We’re really not sure whose perspective to believe except to say that we’re knee deep in whatever Catherine is thinking.
Queen of Earth, pretty clearly, isn’t for all tastes. The emotional cruelty on display is hard to take and unlike films such as Bug or Antichrist which push the scrapes and bruises to transcendent heights, Queen of Earth remains in an anxiety and despair filled limbo which accurately conveys the shaky perspective of Catherine to the viewer whether we learn anything from the experience or not. It is confrontational, harrowing, vindictive, acerbic, angry and even frightening, teetering on the edge of horror without going far enough to declare itself as a thriller. Much like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, it is a dark and unfettered gaze upon two deeply disturbed souls unrepentantly feeding off of one another almost parasitically. Most viewers will find difficulty in the lack of solace or redemption for these two, instead aiming to convey an emotionally distraught and dysfunctional state of mind and those who can’t help but prey on it. As a Bergmaneque stage play of two souls at war with one another, I found it profoundly haunting, deeply disturbing and among the moodiest psychodramas in recent memory. While the eras of actresses Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman are decades past the annals of world cinema, Elisabeth Moss and Catherine Waterston come in as very strong potential successors of the dark and uncompromising chamber piece-theater. Queen of Earth can be at times a very hard film to sit through, as the blackest psychological torments and most tender frailties are exposed naked and raw before the camera. Not for all but for the adventurous cinephile eager to witness a wealth of new, curious and at times, astonishing emotional discoveries, not to be missed!
- Andrew Kotwicki