After the fantastically harsh comedies “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip,” two of my favorite American indies of the new century, writer-director Alex Ross Perry edges into the terrain of the psychological thriller with “Queen of Earth.”
Set in and around a deceptively peaceful Hudson River Valley lake cabin, not far from New York City, it’s a fine showcase for Elisabeth Moss, who played Jason Schwartzman’s exasperated ex in “Listen Up Philip.” Moss’ portrayal of Peggy Olson across the seasons of “Mad Men” offered her a classic hit-series paradox: a limited wide range to explore.
Here, in all of 89 minutes, the range is practically limitless. Moss (also one of the film’s producers) sinks her teeth into a seriously troubled kaleidoscope of a woman who is falling apart in unpredictable ways. Even when Perry’s various stylistic influences, ranging from Roman Polanski to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, threaten to tear his movie apart at the seams, Moss and co-star Katherine Waterston (“Inherent Vice”) keep it together, and keep it very interesting.
It begins with a long, tight close-up of Catherine (Moss) at the exact moment of her unwanted breakup with the off-screen and eerily calm James (Kentucker Audley). I can’t explain why I’m leaving for someone else, he says. “You can’t explain it you can’t explain it you WILL explain it,” she seethes in a run-on sentence, the tears smearing her makeup into a raccoon look. “I hate you. You dishonest sneak.” Perry has a way of surprising you with turns of phrase that are both witty and a little bit scary.
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Catherine seeks “exile” and a little peace at her friend Virginia’s family cabin. Virginia, who is particular about who gets to call her Ginny, is portrayed by the terrific, sphinx-like Waterston. The friendship between these two seems off from the beginning — wary, touchy, too quick to needle and snap. The film proceeds day by day, but Perry intercuts the present-day action with scenes from the previous year’s get-together at the cabin, when Catherine brought James along unannounced and Virginia could barely contain her contempt regarding her guests’ sticky codependency.
In the present-day scenes the tables have turned. Catherine seeks some sort of reconnection to Virginia, but Virginia’s too busy with the guy next door (Patrick Fugit) and it’s like salt in Catherine’s emotional wounds. Around the halfway point “Queen of Earth” becomes more insistent on treating the two leading women as psychological doppelgangers, two sides of the same worn-out nickel. Catherine unravels in ways visually recalling Polanski’s “Repulsion” and, in a feverish party sequence, “Rosemary’s Baby.” Perry has acknowledged in interviews his desire to draw ideas for his own women-on-the-verge story from Polanski, from Ingmar Bergman (most obviously “Persona”), from Fassbinder’s “Marriage of Maria Braun.”
Perry has also cited the influence of Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” which was a studious, self-conscious Bergman rip-off. Little wonder that some aspects of “Queen of Earth” feel like copies of copies. There are times, particularly in the last half-hour, when “Queen of Earth” doesn’t quite seem itself. But Perry’s strongest work, elsewhere and here, seems entirely his and his alone. His films are funny in ways very difficult to describe, because they’re tone-funny, not situation-funny. And to some, “Queen of Earth” will be too singular a depiction of depression and phobic insecurities to be funny at all.
Perry’s cinematographer Sean Price Williams shot on 16 millimeter film, and the results are exquisitely rough-hewn, in sync with the quiet insistence of Keegan DeWitt’s musical score. In the standout sequence, Perry leaves the influence of others behind altogether. Lounging in the cabin together, in a rare moment of apparent tranquility, Catherine and Virginia share breakup stories, as the camera lingers on the one listening, rather than the one talking. By the end of the scene the moment of intimacy has turned sour for Catherine; she’s one-upped by her friend, whose breakup story is told from the perspective of the leaver, not the one left. The actresses are remarkable.
Perry may never make a movie for the masses, whoever they are. But his truest work burrows into weird, blackly comic places few other filmmakers would dare explore. Late in “Queen of Earth,” Catherine tells her friend and tormentor that her goal in life is to avoid her own father’s fate. How’s that going? Virginia asks, with a trace of a smile. The way Moss delivers the answer to that line may be one of my favorite moments at the movies.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
‘QUEEN OF EARTH’
Not rated | Time: 1:29