Queen of Earth: Maximum Impact, by Aaron Pinkston
It seemed like every discussion around Alex Ross Perry’s 2014 indie Listen Up Philip was built around the watchability of unlikeable characters. Whether or not you “liked” Jason Schwartzman’s pompous author or could merely tolerate him, there was, for some, a bit of satisfaction in wallowing in the film’s dark comedy. With his follow up, Queen of Earth, Perry continues with the theme of difficult characters (I haven’t seen The Color Wheel, so maybe it is some sort of unofficial trilogy) while stripping out the safety of laughter. Instead, Queen of Earth follows salty characters sniping at each other while dealing with loss, depression and the feeling of being alone among friends. It may all be a little too much for some, but Perry’s emphasis on style and a cohesive mood make for a more mature and introspective film.
Queen of Earth opens with the film’s signature shot, a close up of star Elisabeth Moss, here at her most dejected with mascara running down her face and eyes red from crying. Catherine has uncovered that her longtime boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) has been cheating on her. The scene is the first of many between two characters in conflict and none are easier to take. This opening scene puts the viewer straight into focus on what Queen of Earth is going to do – anyone expecting another comedy are sadly mistaken. Through all the style and melodrama, Queen of Earth is a wonderful depiction of depression, albeit a heightened one.
From there, Catherine leaves the city for her best friend’s family’s summer home as part of an ongoing tradition vacation. But with her recent trauma (not only has she broken up with her boyfriend, but Catherine’s father, an important and recognized artist, has died), along with the inevitable passing of time, Catherine and Virginia’s friendship has strained. Virginia, played by Katherine Waterston (most known as the femme fatale/missing girl in Inherent Vice), has become scornful of her friend’s spoiled brat attitude and dependence on others. Their interactions begin to poison the tranquil environment, with only a few deeply felt reminders of their long friendship.
Virginia and her new boyfriend Rich (Patrick Fugit, all growed up), whose family owns the neighboring vacation home, are perfect foils for Catherine. Rich, in particular, is delightfully cruel – Fugit’s smugness is probably the only shred of dark fun in the entire film. Though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, every time he’s around he pushes and challenges Catherine, eventually with a tinge of sexual tension.
Perry directs what would otherwise be a relationship drama like a thriller through a number methods – unexpected flashbacks, moody buzzing soundtrack, extreme closeups, and the soft fuzzy look of peak Argento. Overall, it is the young filmmaker’s most ambitious film stylistically, with less of a focus on the sharp dialogue of Listen Up Philip. The style will keep you on edge even during the most innocuous of scenes, building and building until the inevitable breaking point. Perry’s script smartly trumps the viewer’s expectations of a slick thriller many times over. The mixture of style and content probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, and it certainly isn’t perfect, but the emotional nerves of its characters work off the music and the shot selection and the mood to maintain its heightened levels.
This leads to the film’s star Elisabeth Moss, who turns in a fantastically exposed performance. It is a performance from another time, a call back to Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and the queens of melodrama. Perry photographs Moss with great care, primarily through close-ups giving her the opportunity to show depression at an uncomfortable distance. When the first scene of the film shows off Moss in such an extreme way, it is difficult to imagine just where the performance could go. The film’s out-of-time structure is enough to keep Moss varied, but the actress gives plenty of nuance throughout the film before totally breaking down in the film’s third act. Like the stars that came before her, the performance is slightly ridiculous, completely over-the-top by the end, but somehow there are grounded stakes, as well. Perry puts a lot of trust in his star to carry film while being totally raw, and she responds with her best and most complex screen performance.
After the breakout success of Listen of Philip, I’ve seen some consider Queen of Earth to be a minor entry in Alex Ross Perry’s burgeoning career. Sure, the film is small in scope, but it is complex and satisfying on multiple levels. Perry also shows his desire to evolve as a filmmaker as he pares down the dialogue to amp up the editing, shot selection and genre elements. Even if you prefer his previous film there is no doubt that the filmmaker is one to continue to watch, and perhaps an even more interesting one that first thought.