The weight of the whole, bitter world claims two lost souls (and possibly, chillingly, more) in chamber-piece showstopper "Queen of Earth," writer-director Alex Ross Perry's (2014's "Listen Up Philip") haunting paean to female relationships, psychological decay, and the birth of something altogether more suggestively hair-raising. Joining the esteemed company of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965), Ingmar Begman's "Persona" (1966), Robert Altman's "3 Women" (1977), David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive
" (2001), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" as the latest artistic watermark delving into potentially shifting identities and ultimate madness, the film mesmerizes on an unshakable level from its volatile opening sob to its diabolical closing cackle. Nestled in between these bookends are two remarkable performances from Elisabeth Moss (TV's "Mad Men," 2010's "Get Him to the Greek
") and Katherine Waterston (2014's "Inherent Vice
"), their miraculous work burrowing without so much as a flinch into emotionally tenebrous territory.
There was a time when Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) prided herself on how responsible and put-together her life appeared on the outside. While best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) retreated to the quiet solace of her family's unoccupied lake house after a run of disappointments, Catherine kept busy in the city, managing the affairs of her father, a prominent New York artist, and getting serious with boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley). Just one year later, Catherine's foundation has collapsed, abandoned by the two people whom she presumed would always be there for her. Shell-shocked by the one-two punch of her dad's suicide and James' curt breakup, she hopes that a week-long visit in the country to see Virginia will give her the peace of mind she needs to move forward. She's fooling herself. The prickly relationship between these two women is still very much in evidence, and Virginia, who has begun to made amends with her past while continuing to enjoy the less stressful pace away from Manhattan, isn't willing to put her newfound contentment and romantic involvement with neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit) on hold. Catherine, in turn, feels betrayed that she isn't receiving the empathetic shoulder she thinks she deserves. Little by little, her increased isolation and the trauma of her recent setbacks begin to manifest themselves in disturbing ways. She is on the vergenay, in the midstof a mental collapse (and likely something much worse), and she barely notices.
Venomous yet far from unfeeling, "Queen of Earth" has in spades the eerie foreboding of a horror film, the tasty ambiguity of a narrative and thematic puzzle-box mystery, and the barbed tongue of a raven-toned satire. As the story unfolds and Catherine gradually unravels, the film's harrowing juxtaposition of pastoral tranquility and dismaying portent emulates the same feeling one gets waiting for a killer to strike. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry is in thrilling control of every new frame, wrapping his characters in figurative straight-jackets and watching them squirm. He surrounds himself with immense talent behind the camera, deriving impeccably envisioned, boldly disconcerting compositions from cinematographer Sean Price Williams and a momentously freaky music score by Keegan DeWitt full of expertly discordant wind chimes, piano chords and eulogizing church choirs.
Catherine is in desperate need of help from a place she describes as a "self-perpetuating cycle of defeat." While Virginia was recently in similar shoes, her desire to fully commit to being there for her pal is outweighed by the grudge she's holdingmemories from a year prior of Catherine's aloof demeanor when she visited with an unwelcome James during her similar time of need. Their respective viewpoints are skewed anyway, their dysfunctional friendship prone to biting passive-aggressiveness and a constant struggle for supremacy. Neither woman is the easiest to get along with, and together they form a maladjusted cocktail exacerbated by the appearance of Rich. Catherine is put out by his frequent presence at Virginia's house when she assumed it would only be the two of them, but what is going on beneath the surface of her already fragile state outstrips simple bouts of grief, depression and jealousy. It is this enigmatic element that deepens the film's ominously evocative allure, the uneaten, steadily wilting salad on Catherine's nightstand symptomatic of so much more than her deteriorating mind frame.
Elisabeth Moss' performance begins as an explosive hurricane before Catherine slowly implodes, growing unnervingly quiet yet increasingly anguished and spiteful. This is a powerhouse turn that scorches with words as well as glares, a study in commanding stillness and imaginably sociopath tendencies. Katherine Waterston receives the brasher but less showy role of Virginia ("Don't call me Ginny"), digging into the layers of her fascinatingly thorny character, a through-the-looking-glass mirror image of Catherine. It would be easy to write her off as an antagonist, except that no one is created in strictly black and white shades. There are hints that Virginia cares about Catherine, but too often her overarching ego and sense of pride get in her way of expressing it. In their most open and intimate exchange, the two of them bond over the mistakes and regrets they have experienced, and their valiant but spottily unsuccessful attempts to not be defined by the men in their lives. It is a struggle they are aware of and despise, and one that, at least briefly, allows them to recognize their common ground.
Caught awkwardly in the middle is Virginia's new boyfriend, Rich, their late-night conversations behind closed doors just one of a thousand catalysts for Catherine's paranoia. Patrick Fugit (2014's "Gone Girl
") plays Rich exceptionally well and appropriately close to the vest, a presumed nice guy without the patience or the willingness to put up with what he reads as Catherine craving attention and making a spectacle of herself. A scene where the couple take Catherine on a canoe ride reads like the ultimate insult. With the water shimmering like prisms in the warm sun, Catherine is saddled in between her more experienced rowers, the lower center seat of the boat and the lifejacket she's wearing refashioning her as a petulant child condescended to by her elders. Not to be outdone, Catherine reclaims the revolving upper hand in a point-blank brilliant third-act confrontation opposite Rich, verbally murdering him in a vicious diatribe that somehow stings all the more for her refusal to raise her voice. As far as she's concerned, she's got nothing left to lose, and everything to take.
Is "Queen of Earth" a penetrating study in mental illness, a passionate discourse into the uglier side of human relationships, or the kaleidoscopic origin story of a wicked witch claiming her first victims? Writer-director Alex Ross Perry's note-perfect cinematic conjuring suggests all of these intentions as Catherine gets caught in a swirling maelstrom threatening to destroy, empower and possess her in equal measure. In a horrific set-piece marking the arguable point of no return, a house party thrown by a hooded Virginia gets the best of a panicked Catherine as the revelers (some of them masked) seem to collapse upon her like a coven. Are they trying to help her or harm her? Is this a hallucinatory episode, or the result of more sinister designs? It is always inspiring to witness a film at work operating on an altogether elevated plane, one that defies easy description, prediction and convention while offering up an experience never seen before in quite the same way. "Queen of Earth" is one of these special, mold-breaking occasions, dipping itself into grotesquery with such sneaky abandon it frequently catches one off-guard in the best way possible. By the picture's final quivering moments, Catherine and Virginiatrue friends in name onlyhave become inextricably linked by dual metamorphoses, the immeasurable interpretations of such deserving of debate and deconstruction amongst cinephiles and film students for generations to come. Damaged people transformed by the cruel hands of fate, they are casualties of circumstance, yes, but also of themselves, and each other.