One of the great joys of consistently following movies and the careers associated with them is watching young directors and actors find each other. As in every other art form, filmmakers and actors have their muses, people who bring out the best in them. I experienced that thrill watching Alex Ross Perry’s latest film, Queen of Earth, marveling at the limits to which he and his lead Elizabeth Moss were pushing each other as they conjured up an atmosphere of bitterness and despair so potent that it felt almost physically stifling. It’s creative alchemy of a sort that can only be conjured up by collaborators entirely in tune with each other’s instincts.
Moss played a significant role in Perry’s previous film, Listen Up Philip, but here she’s in every scene, the emotional black hole into which the rest of the movie is inexorably sucked. And she is, frankly, astonishing in an almost impossibly demanding role. She plays Catherine, a New Yorker having a not-so-gradual breakdown after the death of her father, a famous artist who was also her mentor, and a tumultuous breakup with her cruel boyfriend with whom she had a dysfunctional and co-dependent relationship. Nearly the entire film takes place in and around an upstate lake house to which she is invited by her best friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston, excellent in a less flashy but nearly as challenging role) to decompress and take a breath. Unfortunately for both women, their ‘friendship’ is one of those ongoing duels in which years of mutual resentment have built up under a thin veneer of passive aggression and every second seemingly casual observation is weaponized. Sometimes, having known someone for a long time simply means that you’re the one best qualified to push their buttons. And, indeed, hostility starts to bubble up before they’ve even reached the house.
Moss played a significant role in Perry’s previous film, Listen Up Philip, but here she’s in every scene, the emotional black hole into which the rest of the movie is inexorably sucked. And she is, frankly, astonishing in an almost impossibly demanding role.
It soon becomes apparent that while the breakup and the bereavement may have been the triggers for her emotional spiral, Catherine’s psychological wounds cut far deeper. The film slowly turns into a gothic tale of madness, anchored by Moss’ increasingly feral, uncomfortably expressive performance, framed in frequent, sustained close-ups and punctuated by the odd semi-hysterical laugh. Scene after scene feels like a riff on the centuries-old tradition of madwomen in culture both high and low. Perry deliberately evokes the more caustic and emotionally turbulent of Bergman’s chamber dramas — Persona in particular — and Roman Polanski in Repulsion mode. None of it feels like pastiche, however, as the work stands on its own, both as formalist experiment and disturbing psychological study. Perry’s deceptively rough-edged technique establishes an atmosphere that feels more akin to a thriller than a psychodrama, using long takes and strategic split diopter shots—in which the background and foreground are sharp while the middle is out-of-focus—straight out of a Brian De Palma movie, lending the fractured connection between the two women a striking visual dimension. The tension in this entirely bloodless movie is extraordinary. I found myself waiting for one of the characters to grab a knife and slit the other’s throat. As it happens, the emotional violence depicted instead is every bit as jarring.
For all its crazy-woman-in-the-attic trappings, Perry and Moss’ depiction of Catherine doesn’t come out of nowhere like some ghoulish jack-in-the-box. Flashbacks to the previous summer, in which Catherine and her boyfriend vacationed at the lake house with Ginny, provide important context, giving the audience a glimpse of a comparatively stable phase. The signs of trouble are already present in the form of harsh words between the two women and in the oppressive presence of the men. Catherine’s boyfriend, her never-seen but obviously narcissistic father and Ginny’s rich layabout of a neighbor (played to oily perfection by Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit) who keeps wandering over to the house to toy with one woman or the other are all presented as deeply unpleasant figures, unthinking at best and downright sadistic at worst. Catherine’s apocalyptic grief and bitterness feels as much the product of external cruelty as it does of internal dysfunction. That said, it’s difficult to pin the blame entirely on other people. Catherine is a portrait of suffering as pathology, the sort of tragically broken figure who can’t help but isolate, magnify and focus on the traumas in her life, letting them eat away at her sense of self like termites in a wooden house. The resulting psychological dissolution is as viscerally unsettling as any top-of-the-line chainsaw murder epic.