Director: Alex Ross Perry
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit
Spoilers Within: Yes
Film 16 – #68 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
So far in 2016, only two films have had me in a chokehold with their calculated uneasiness: the potent viciousness of Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, and Alex Ross Perry’s far slighter, yet no less menacing Queen of Earth. It’s brimming with vindictive stares, acerbic bickering and simmering resentment and while it’s evidently not as physically violent as Saulnier’s crimson fight for survival, here it’s the dormant threat of escalation that provides similar feelings of agonising uncertainty.
The very definition of chamber drama, Queen of Earth stars Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston on blisteringly fine form as two friends on a weekend retreat after Moss’s Catherine suffers a one-two jab of familial death and a crumbled relationship. Opening on a bedraggled close-up of Moss’s distressed face as her off-camera boyfriend (Kentucker Audley’s James) becomes her ex, this scene represents the tone that defines the subtext: an unflinchingly truthful means to revealing the ugliness smoldering behind formerly happy lives.
There’s a rhythm and timbre to the conversations in Perry’s script that express insensitive animosity: we know these two are childhood friends because it’s been said, but in the period that we’ve come to know them due to brief, smartly edited flashbacks, it never feels as though it’s a friendship worth salvaging. Waterston’s Virginia is constantly on the defence, but is no stranger to throwing pointed barbs Catherine’s way, and it’s the invitation of her neighbour Rich (Patrick Fugit) into their twosome that partly reinforces Catherine’s instability. Matching a similar weekend retreat the year prior, it was Virginia who felt slighted when the girly weekend became a triangle with Catherine inviting James, but the focus is now on Virginia’s cunning reversal and Catherine’s emotional fallout due to this – perhaps subconscious – decision. The latter’s healing over the loss of two very important men in her life (signals of co-dependency are visible from the first shot) is interrupted by Rich: an amiable visitor and – at least in Catherine’s eyes – a meddling aggressor . It’s not Rich’s fault, though, but rather the two friends that intently push each other’s buttons with brutal honesty, pushing them further into their respective neuroses.
If not for these performances the film would still have succeeded, but in lesser ways: the thrumming score serving as a perilous bed to the venomous exchanges of words and the static, sometimes overbearingly in-your-face close-ups are well executed, but without career-defining turns from the two leads, it could’ve been too reminiscent of the mumblecore subgenre’s frequent banality. Fortunately, Perry knows exactly where he wants his characters to be, and we feel every move and glance with cautious omnipresence.
Queen of Earth is a masterclass in nervous tension with two consummate lead performances, a script full of memorably caustic stings (the dinner confrontation is unforgettably fierce in its strongly worded vitriol) and a cerebrally upsetting approach to the manifestations of anxiety and the themes of depression. Perry adeptly toys with the audience’s expectations and fears of violence to such an extent that it becomes as intense and unnerving as any horror movie this year.