Queen of Earth (2015)
Friday, September 4, 2015 at 08:10AM
Ian Simmons in Queen of Earth [2015]

The Madness of Queen Catherine

Queen of Earth isn't a horror movie in the strictest sense, but it's unsettling in ways that most genre films would kill to achieve. Alex Ross Perry's latest film is haunting, hard to watch, and nearly impossible to describe without giving things away.

Following a nasty breakup and her father's suicide, Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) retreats to her best friend's parent's cabin for a week of crying, coping, and recovery. Virginia (Katherine Waterston) does her best to be supportive, but there's something "off" about Catherine's grief, signs that she may have much deeper psychological problems. As the days wear on, conversations become pointed and downright antagonistic--especially with the arrival of an attractive but almost preternaturally callous neighbor named Rich (Patrick Fugit). Perry cuts between two awkward social threesomes: Catherine's present-day grief retreat and a weekend from the summer before, when she and her domineering ex-boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) played house opposite a recently single Virginia.

I spoke with Perry after seeing the film, which he described as a self-imposed challenge. He wanted to break from the indie comedies that made him famous and go exploring with his collaborators outside their comfort zones. The result feels strikingly deliberate. Queen of Earth plays like an art-house homage to early 80s slashers or possession pictures, without relying on gimmicks to see it through. Considering how much I disliked Perry's previous film, Listen Up Philip (and the reasons I disliked it), I half expected Queen of Earth to be a snarky, self-absorbed exercise masquerading as a commentary on "cheesy" horror movies. 

This isn't that. This is a drama about how unexpressed feelings can drive us mad, especially if they go unexpressed with those we're allegedly close with. It's also a harsh critique of a culture that prizes pithiness over sincerity, and the demeaning cycle of uninformed, headlines-only criticism that can tip the balance of a mind that's timid and riddled with self-doubt to begin with.

Thankfully, Perry builds a case for these themes by dissolving his idyllic, wooded atmosphere gradually, narrowing the scope from expansive lake and tree shots to the confining, carnival-mirror horrors of Catherine's room. Keegan DeWitt's score is the film's unsung hero, providing a kind of soul-shaking jump-scare motif that doesn't hit the audience over the head so much as stab it in the base of the skull.

I don't mean to make Queen of Earth sound exploitive. Perry succeeds in his challenge not by replicating things he thinks will resonate with genre fans, but by extrapolating the elements that make those films effective and wringing out their done-to-death trappings. We all know precisely how Catherine's final encounter with Rich will play out--right until it doesn't. Perry follows up this momentary surprise with a beat that would have led to a "thrilling", bloody climax in a lesser picture, and instead leaves us wondering just what the hell is going on (placing us squarely in the shoes of the cabin's occupants).

These subverted expectations aren't just twists, they're well-earned payoffs to a film that asks us to look past surface concerns and question just how much we know about ourselves and our friends. Catherine is an artist who spends a good portion of the film drawing Virginia's portrait. Perry brings us into the mindset of someone struggling to capture a subject's essence, rather than just features. He lingers on Moss and Waterston's beautiful (and, more importantly, interesting) faces during an extended discussion about past boyfriends. We absorb their body language on an intimate level. We sit up in attention at the scene's subtext in ways that the characters having the conversation do not. We are free to see these warning signs, but become trapped in details of personality that elicit a kind of "Don't go in that room!" response.

Queen of Earth feels like it's on uneven footing at times, as Perry toys with our understanding of his character's reality, their understanding of their own reality, and reality's understanding of his characters. It all makes sense in the end, though, and I would recommend this as a repeat-viewing experience if the resolution were not so awful to consider. That's some of the highest praise I can give a film like this. It's so good, I may never want to see it again.

Article originally appeared on Kicking the Seat (http://www.kickseat.com/).
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