If you hear there’s a new tiny character drama about a woman who, mourning the death of her father and having left her boyfriend, rents a vacation home with her best friend, you’re probably already imagining a treacly little indie going through the same quirky life-affirming motions. Luckily Queen of Earth, the movie in question, does no such thing. It imagines an entire psychological world for its characters, and commits to following their complicated emotional drivers to intense and uncompromising places. We open on Elisabeth Moss’s face, makeup streaked after what must’ve been a tremendous cry. She’s breaking up with her partner, who remains off screen as we’re pinned mere inches from her face, taking in every jagged breath and spit of anger. “Don’t look at me,” she snaps. And yet we can’t look away.
This is an Alex Ross Perry movie, a designation we can now, after four films, start to identify as marking a project that’ll start with recognizable territory and take us somewhere unexpected. He’s a terrific writer-director who seems to have made it his mission to take on projects which are in broad strokes overfamiliar types, and then coloring them in with a whole interesting palate all his own. His 2011 sophomore effort The Color Wheel was on the surface a brother/sister road trip movie shot through with mumblecore plotting and fumbling banter, but it was photographed in gorgeously textured black and white and built to a tremendous scene that caught its characters in close sustained crescendo of messy feelings. Then there’s his previous feature, Listen Up Philip, which was a prickly man-child relationship comedy that allowed its characters unusual room to be themselves, following various members of the ensemble down wandering paths of lovely character moments rich and tender.
What sets Perry apart is the thought and intentionality behind his creative choices. He’s not simply showing off his chops – although he is – or making movies that’ll get him studio paychecks – though he will. He’s telling cinematic stories, taking the raw material of any indie drama and making of it self-consciously literary dialogue and overwhelming visual precision. So when the opening title card of Queen of Earth stomps in with fancy red cursive popping against the stark grey sadness of the opening image, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a confident filmmaker. We follow Moss into a lake house chamber drama where her friend (Inherent Vice's Katherine Waterson) finds herself moving cautiously, walking on eggshells, as her friend grieves over her intersectional heartbreaks. Perry uses slow dissolves, sharp cuts, and icy silences to simmer with suspense. With glacial horror pacing and a needling thriller score, it’s less Your Sister’s Sister, more an American Persona done up with hints of Repulsion.
With editor Robert Greene’s methodically precise cutting, the mood of the film is intoxicatingly deliberate and unblinkingly disorienting. It will cut back to the previous year, where we see a much happier Moss in the same rental house. Watterson is there as well, a little grumpy because her friend’s boyfriend (Kentucky Audley) is along for the vacation. Serving as an ironic counterpoint to the sad present, where the presence of what Moss perceives as an interloping neighbor (Patrick Fugit) seemingly reminds her of what she’s lost, these glimpses of happier times cut into long pushes in on intense emoting. It is uncut psychological pain artfully rendered, where even good memories are jabs in the side. Social interactions become a nightmare, others looming over. Precise blocking, smooth surfaces, and dramatic lighting highlight the air of tension even in mundane moments. Acutely misophonic sound design heightens chewing, swallowing, choking.
A tricky two-hander, the film captures the stultifying balancing act of trying to support someone in their time of emotional distress, a period of psychic suffering that’s difficult to be around, and yet hard to avoid for those who care about their loved one. As a portrait of depression, it’s the most soul-draining, nerve-jangling one since Von Trier’s Melancholia. But unlike that film, which was so drunk on melancholy it left me sick to my stomach – a compliment, by the way – Queen of Earth maintains an icier tone, a clinically sympathetic eye on Moss’s elusive, slippery performance. She’s called upon to play a double-edged emotional high-wire act. In flashbacks, she’s sunny. In the present, she’s on the bleeding edge of stability. Waterson, meanwhile, has an even slipperier role, filtering layers of grumpiness and wariness through an exterior that’s trying not to compound her friend’s problems. It’s rare to find a film so concerned with and attuned to friends’ interdependent emotional support systems. In doing so, there's warmth, even some laughs, underneath fraught feelings.
Shot on film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film’s cold touch and sharp blocking keep the characters pinned in together, caught in adjacent headspace even when not physically together. They can hear muffled sounds through walls. They can take phone calls in the yard, leaking one-sided conversations into the house, though they can maintain mystery with a brisk “Don’t ask.” One striking shot captures both floors of the house in the same frame, perched on the stairs in such a way that we can really feel the disjunction between the figure leaning against a kitchen counter downstairs and the one upstairs slowly dragging herself out of bed. Perry shows equal interest in the character’s mental states as he does the filmmaking techniques he so adeptly manipulates. This is a difficult and finely sustained work of psychological observation, diving into miserable depths of pity, ego, and insecurity with a shifty but unblinking thriller’s eye for dread.