Director: Alex Ross Perry
Runtime: 90 minutes
There is an art to filming conversations between character, and it's one that is often ignored. Have two people on screen talking? Then just cut between closeups and mid-shots as each person speaks, with the occasional excursion to a wide shot to let you know that both actors actually shared space together on set. Hell, if there's some drama going on behind the scenes, you can just pretend that two actors were actually on screen together (paging The Good Wife).
Yet for director Alex Ross Perry, whose films never contain much in the way of visual flash, the handling of conversations is of the utmost importance. This is just a small, but crucial, part of why his latest film, psychological drama Queen of Earth, succeeds so well. Though there are scenes that employ the well-tread shot-reverse-shot method, Perry also showcases a flair for framing the ordinary in unexpected ways. In one early scene, as tragedy-stricken Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and successful Virginia (Katherine Waterston) chat, Perry allows the focus to wander. The entire scene takes place in one shot, and shifts from holding on the speaker to the listener. Some of the most important bits of acting take place as performers listen and react to their co-stars, and Perry utilizes this notion to great effect.
There is also the matter of the nature of the conversation(s), and Queen of Earth has a knack for slyly ratcheting up the emotional tension without fully playing its hand. Which is good, seeing as this is the sort of psycho-drama that's heavy on people walking through rooms and talking, and light on external plot developments. Since it's long past due that I actually lay out of the story's foundation, it's this: best friends Catherine and Virginia take a vacation at the latter's (well, her parents') rural lake house after the former's life is turned upside down.
As we learn in the opening scene, a claustrophobic closeup on Moss' tear-stained face, Catherine's father has just died, which has prompted her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) to finally end their relationship (timing isn't his strong suit). Catherine is distraught, for reasons that go beyond the obvious. Virginia, meanwhile, is tasked with being the supporting BFF and emotional caretaker. Despite the placid water by the lake house, the friends' retreat is anything but smooth sailing.
In these two roles, Mr. Perry has created two difficult personalities that are at once off-putting and fascinating. Perry's films have never gone out of their way to make characters likable, and that certainly hasn't changed now. But underneath these thorny exteriors lies the rich psychological substance that drives Queen of Earth from petty squabbling to acid-soaked monologues. If Bergman and Polanski had co-directed the beach house episode of Girls (and/or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), they would have come up with something like Perry's latest.
Most intriguing is how Perry avoids giving out obvious answers. Catherine and Virginia may be friends, but they have funny ways of showing it. They often trade emotional places as well, at times blurring the line between each other (much like Bergman's Persona). That's precisely where the above-mentioned conversation scenes come into play. Closeups are - obviously - used to highlight an actor's face, but in Queen of Earth they also play a big part in erasing the weakening border that exists between the two leads. As we see in flashbacks, Catherine and Virginia were once in each others' shoes, and the smartly composed shots of them together subtly reinforce the idea that their emotional states are sliding up and down along an unsettling spectrum. Even when the women are separated, Perry finds ways of connecting their bodies (or minds), such as when he dissolves from a shot of Virginia jogging to Catherine sluggishly making her way down a staircase.
Whether sharing Perry and cinematographer Sean P. Williams' compositions or not, both leads deliver standout performances as well. Waterston, who only came into the spotlight in last year's Inherent Vice, owns the first half of the film. The caretaker role can become redundant, yet the actress keeps Virginia full of surprises. You expect her to react to a situation one way, given previous examples, and then she does the opposite. Perry also gives the actress quite a bit of room to delve into the character in the thoughtfully-chosen flashbacks, which are informative rather than disruptive. Past and present run together much like Catherine and Virginia, reinforcing the creeping notion that we're all just a few degrees away from either triumph or a meltdown.
With Waterston (mostly) acting as the emotional anchor of the piece, Moss is free to really let loose, and she does so spectacularly. She and Perry take quite a bit of time to wind up Catherine after the opening sob fest, forgoing the urge to fill the role with nothing but melodramatic outbursts. Catherine's unravelling is a slow motion spectacle of mental collapse, doled out in bits and pieces. Moss makes acrobatic leaps from bitterness to anger to tears to unhinged laughter, and lands them all with eerie plausibility. Despite the creepy score that gently pushes the story along, Queen of Earth is sincere in its treatment of mental instability, even though it often has an acerbic way of showing it.
Perceptions of the characters and their actions change at every turn, and to watch the actors, but especially Moss, trace it all on their faces is both elegant and grotesque. Restraint is a powerful tool, and it's impressive how Perry and co. use it even when characters' psyches start fraying at the edges. When Catherine unleashes a torrent of invective on Virginia's smarmy boyfriend (Patrick Fugit), it's all the more frightening because of how quiet she keeps her voice, even though we know that there's a hurricane of bile built up inside. Rather than assault the character (and audience) with an explosion, Perry and Moss opt for a slow poisoning, ensuring that the side effects will linger under your skin and in your head for far longer.