Queen of Earth Dir. Alex Ross Perry

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: psychological thriller
Others: Persona, A Woman Under the Influence, Green

What have we come to expect from Alex Ross Perry, the writer and director of teeth-grinding neo-classics The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip? Post-college ennui? Fear of artistic failure? Brutal honesty mixed with appalling behavior? Though his history is short, the immediacy and intimacy imbued in his previous works sets his films apart from the constant stream of content being pushed out and falling into our Netflix queues. Perhaps his absence from that platform is the reason he has not yet been upvoted enough to helm a major studio drama. Queen of Earth probably won’t change that, but it surely continues his brief record of excellence, and does so while moderating our ideas of his obsessions and pushing his agenda forward.

The story follows the privileged Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) as she seeks refuge in her old friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lake house after a tumultuous break-up and the recent death of her father, a famous artist. Nearly the entire film takes place in and around this sylvan retreat, a sort of asylum for the fragile anti-hero. She sleeps and paints and struggles to cope with her losses while mining her past with her erstwhile confidant, trying to understand the roots of her dependent personality. Her search is a futile and hellish one, as she spirals into depression and delusion, grasping for a semblance of recovery that seems unreachable. And as she devolves, she begins spreading her infectious loathing, spewing her bile at everyone around her.

The tight focus on characters and illumination of their shortcomings is an expressive trait of Perry’s work, exposing the weakness and depravity of his subjects and our own secret psyches. It is revealed through wrenching emotional vicissitudes as much as incisive displays of linguistic power. Perry’s dialogue is often brilliant, almost masterful, as Catherine intermittently perseverates, whispers, and explodes as Virginia attempts to console her. The centerpieces of her musings are two immaculate set pieces that are at once natural and carefully constructed. A dreamlike scene of reflection in bed at Virginia’s side connects the past with the present and sheds light on their dissolving friendship. With the lens hovering over them, it feels like witnessing the confessions of conjoined twins after being separated at childhood. Alternatively, the next stroke of genius arrives in the form of a furious tirade, in which Catherine expounds on her hatred for Virginia’s boyfriend, a handsome and innocuous neighbor who she sees as an evil interloper. Her rant goes beyond the realm of reality and becomes a risible dissection of her disgust and anger. It would play well as a clip at an awards show or one to share with the theater geeks the film speaks to.

Given its isolated location, Queen of Earth does have limitations, but they are only situational. With no intention of leaving the house, we are restricted to the scrutiny of Catherine at her worst. Granted, this context is deliberate, but the insular setting tends to vilify her as she undergoes a horrific transformation. Still, the stellar performances outshine this deficiency, and Moss’s portrayal is absolutely stunning. After a single viewing, it becomes clear that there is more beneath the surface that will need to be dug up in the future.

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