Faults Dir. Riley Stearns

[Snoot Entertainment; 2015]

Styles: black comedy, drama, psychological thriller
Others: Split Image, Compliance, Ticket To Heaven, Identity, The Sacrament, Red State

Cults are so silly. Ever since seeing Strangers With Candy’s two-part homage to the subject (“The Blank Stare” 207/208), cult stories have been a dependably absurd hoot. But the inherent pain is not lost on me. No matter how cheesy the rhetoric, how flamboyant the leaders or transparently opportunistic the machinations, there’s a dull hum of tragedy to the phenomenon. Cults are like cruelly crude manifestations of the limitations of child rearing. When they all kill themselves, it is as though the acute, overwhelming defeat of one person is passed on to those who dared to give up on their own egos and solely believe in them. It’s often a seemingly impossible situation, coexistence. One could spend the whole of their lives trying to figure it out, let alone take part. It seems that, ignoring the itinerant nefarious practices, cults can provide a direct line to interconnectedness. You don’t have to be dumb to be needy, but cult stories show how easily being stupid and belonging can trump being shrewd and alienated.

So, with this in mind, I was psyched to dive in to Faults. It’s a low-budget debut, well stocked with quality actors, and based in the ethically murky world of deprogramming. While I’d love to give it credit for its conciseness, it pales in comparison to its more ambiguous indie cult thriller forebears, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sound of My Voice. However, the first 20 minutes possess a very different vibe than those films. The introduction to our end-of-the-line protagonist, Ansel (Leland Orser), tries for that breezy quirk/everyday viscera cringe comedy that you’d find in a Quentin Dupieux or Calvin Lee Reeder film. It almost works, but things slow way down when the broke, disgraced Ansel gets a chance at redemption through cult member Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whose folks are desperate to have him deprogram. After snatching her up and bringing her into the crummy motel room where we are to spend most of the next hour, the film takes on an odd sort of suspense. Since we don’t know anything about the titular group Claire belongs to, we are dependent on Winstead to make good on this. While she seems a capable actor, virtually nothing she says or does packs any kind of cinematic punch. Orser’s wincing, jittery energy is left to carry the rest of the film.

And he just can’t do it. When the film isn’t slight (the icky-passing-for-creepy visual of god telepathy nosebleeds, obligatory sexual tension, and mildly executed wtf-ness), it’s completely inert. It may’ve passed for a decent short, if only there was something there beyond its inscrutable twist ending. This is a film that is as maddeningly vacuous as one-word movie poster pull quotes. It’s not so much chilling as it is “…chilling…” Since Faults is such a compact, succinctly structured film, its sluggishness is particularly frustrating. There just isn’t enough in there, pulp-wise or thematically, to crest and drive the viewer to shore. For how slow and spare Martha Marcy is, it is still a more entertaining, more memorable and overall richer film. Judging from his 2013 short The Cub, Stearns has a solid enough sense of humor and a tasteful eye for composition. But Faults underplays it’s rudimentary hand and seems to be passing this off as subtlety. The character development is non-existent and the laughs all but vanish (save a curious performance from Jon Gries as Ansel’s sulky, yet brutal aggrieved agent).

While thinking about this film I almost found myself indoctrinated into the cult of apology. I know I’ve gone there in reviews/conversations before. Movies are costly and nearly impossible to get made. It’s a promising first try. If you don’t have anything nice to say… But I just can’t begin to see why this screenplay made the 2013 blacklist survey. Maybe there’s something to be said for the idea of programming a de-programmer, or moving from trickery to the metaphysical, but these filmmakers just didn’t sell it. There is more fever dream beauty and intrigue in the above poster artwork than anywhere in this film. It’s a story that, once it’s sealed in its motel room, demands atmosphere. And the boilerplate soundtrack fails to provide it, the dialogue pops about as well as the shitty wallpaper, and nowhere is there an even low budget attempt at any kind of visual effects save a neat little moment when Claire’s reflection fades into the TV static. This is not a promising voice. It is shy of passable and a discredit to the great lineage of cult films. This film couldn’t shine Ticket To Heaven’s shoes. The only upshot is that for once a limited release seems entirely prudent. You watch that Kool-Aid powder swirl and dissolve in its glass, but after this minor display, it hardly seems worth ingesting.

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