Office Christmas Party
Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…
Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” is as unsettling as any horror film that you’ll see this year but it so by virtue of its filmmaking and its performances instead of a twisting and turning narrative. Echoing dramas of internal conflict turned into threats of physical danger like “Persona” and “Repulsion,” Perry explores the concept that it is the human mind and its emotional undercurrents that is the most terrifying thing in the world. Anchored by incredible performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, this is one of the most mesmerizing pictures of the year.
“Queen of Earth” opens with a tone-defining close-up of Catherine (Moss). Her makeup has run into bags around her eyes, her hair is disheveled, and she is emotionally drained. It is brutal, unsparing and direct. Perry doesn’t pull back and offer much coverage, just a couple close-ups of Catherine’s now-ex-boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley). He is breaking up with her, and she is not taking it well, noting that this is the kind of emotional blow, coming shortly after the death of her father, that will devastate her. As we will quickly learn, Catherine was one of those people who was deeply co-dependent on two men in her life—her father and her boyfriend. When the former dies and the latter leaves her, she will be totally adrift and border on unstable.
To try to bring her back to Earth, friend Virginia (Waterston), Ginny to her friends but only her friends, invites Catherine to spend the weekend at her family’s cabin in the woods. Editor Robert Greene deftly intercuts back to a similar weekend a year ago in which the roles were reversed—Catherine was there with James and Virginia was the lonely third wheel, resentful that a girls’ weekend turned into a triangle. Almost subconsciously (but maybe not so sub-) creating the same dynamic a year later, Virginia invites her neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit) to spend time with her and Catherine on this sun-kissed weekend. Catherine hates Rich. It could be just because he represents a gender she doesn’t feel like seeing right now, or that, like Virginia last year, she resents her emotional healing being invaded.
If this all sounds like the set-up for a mumblecore drama, you’re not wrong. And yet “Queen of Earth” has a very different tone than the work of Joe Swanberg. First, there’s the unusual friendship between Virginia and Catherine, two people who can be devastatingly, dangerously honest with each other. They take stabs at each other to see how much the other one will emotionally bleed. They are kind of awful to one another in the way friends know the buttons to push that enemies do not. Ginny accuses Catherine of living in her father’s shadow and tied to her ex-boyfriend, almost as if she’s pushing her friend deeper into depression, knowing she has to face some realities before she can return to normalcy. And Perry very carefully focuses more often on the listener, more interested in the impact of what’s being said on the person who hears it than the act of saying it.