It’s a common paradox that when a film’s main character has hit rock bottom, the actor embodying the downfall is actually soaring. Just a couple minutes into Alex Ross Perry’s fourth feature, “Queen Of Earth,” this is already the case. Sure, it helps that Perry has written an opening scene with his protagonist, Catherine, in the midst of a breakup with a longtime boyfriend just days after her father has committed suicide. But dire circumstances are rarely told, they’re shown, and Perry trusts that his spotlight on Elizabeth Moss — one of the most magnetic, vibrant faces on screen today — has given her wings at the same time she’s grounding Catherine into misery.
Maybe it helps that she’s kneeling, or that her face — a clown-like concoction of wet hair, smeared and teary eyeliner and a raw, red nose – takes up most of the screen. Maybe it helps that her voice toggles out of tune, cracking and bending in volume and pitch as she asks questions like “Why are you doing this to me?” But what you really notice are the choices being made here. Like the fact that Moss has been crying for quite some time before we see her to get to this disheveled state. That Perry isn’t concerned with first impressions, or at least the good ones. That for this entire opening monologue, filled with a series of weeping and resentful questions, Perry has kept the camera entirely on Moss, on her digressing appearance and wilting stature, as if she were the only one in the room. “I don’t want you to see me like this,” she pleads. But it’s so abundantly clear that’s all Perry wants us to see.
This is both a frightening, exciting departure for Moss and a logical next step. After years playing Peggy Olsen on “Mad Men”, hiding behind bangs and then her buttoned up morality, playing Catherine, and flexing her contemporary female muscles a second time with Perry after a part in his 2014 hit “Listen Up Phillip,” has shed a stuffiness to which she had grown accustomed.
“Mad Men was so controlled, with so much subtext, and it was so subtle,” she recently told New York Magazine. “It was a very distinct style, so it’s great to be able to do something like Queen of Earth where it’s no holds barred — I can do whatever I want, I can ad-lib, I can do something crazy. That kind of freedom is very intoxicating.”
You can tell Moss excels in this environment. It takes a special actor to turn misanthropy into an engaging, if not mildly amusing, character trait, and with “Queen Of Earth,” Perry has again banked on his casting to deliver films that can be seen equally and simultaneously with revulsion and fascination. That’s not to say his movies – which received a recent retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image — are misanthropic themselves, but they seem content to linger in the cynical and perturbed perspectives of his characters, often in the midst of breakdowns.
There are two main ones in “Queen Of Earth” and they blur and mirror each other in profound and frightening ways. The other is Virginia (only her good friends call her Ginny), played by an equally chilling Katherine Waterston, who has offered her parents’ cabin to Catherine as a place of solitude to escape and come to terms with her new reality, which now involves the absence of the most important men in her life. This seems like a kind gesture from a best friend, but it quickly becomes a miscalculated decision.
A year earlier, to which the film channels back in brief, insightful ways, Catherine, at this time still attached to her boyfriend, has come to see Virginia at the same cabin in a state much more buoyant and self-absorbed. Her father was a famous artist and her privilege and occasional smugness seep through conversations that Virginia, roughly sketched as unemployed, is keen to call her out on. The flashbacks, which sometimes become indecipherable (Moss’s bangs, again, help identify a time period), critique and demonstrate the ways in which Catherine has changed both in her appearance and demeanor. They also highlight the growing void between the two friends, a mood that has almost immediately begun to shift when they enter the home.
Using an unnerving score from Keegan DeWitt, along with intimate and claustrophobic cinematography by Sean Price Williams, Perry relies on small, subtle cues to hint at the pair’s growing tension. Virginia crinkles a potato chip bag while Catherine is drawing on the porch and it’s though Virginia’s presence alone, mindlessly chewing, is an intentional affront to the previously peaceful landscape. Later, Patrick Fugit, playing literally the boy next door, rekindles a courtship with Virginia and becomes a scheming, insulting force towards Catherine. Sharp glances and sarcasm permeate their rooms. Kind considerations are instead imagined as small pieces of a master plan. Perry doesn’t fidget in his filmmaking, which enhances and boils the growing resentment, but also allows us to see it take shape. In one poignant scene, he uses a single take of monologues between both women, waxing about former loves, and gradually shifts emphasis, slowly moving his camera from Catherine to Virginia and back. This is supposed to be a commiseration. Instead, it only emphasizes their isolation from each other.
You can see Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” as an influencer here, as well as several other genre films that explore the relationships between two women. But you also see his own unique patterns emerge. Perry’s second film, “The Color Wheel,” in which he plays Colin, an apathetic brother to his sister JR, played by Carlen Atlman, can feel both amateurish and disjointed but bristles with ideas and a clear voice. It’s a road trip movie – the siblings travel north to reclaim JR’s things after she has broken up with an old professor – that sorts out their insecurities and fills an emotional, psychological void with an incestuous bowtie.
“Listen Up Phillip,” last year’s Sundance favorite and Perry’s most mainstream offering, handed Jason Schwartzman the opportunity to play a small-minded, big-talking author, who breaks up with his girlfriend and runs away to upstate New York for refuge as a way to cope with the insurmountable pressure to follow up his first hit novel. The film is the most chatty and melancholic of Perry’s short canon, but they all represent an investigation into dealing with loss and coping with the fallout of broken relationships.
He’s itching at multiple scratches, really. What happens when our everyday realities become completely foreign to us at a moment’s notice? What happens when an artificially nurtured vision of ourselves becomes distorted and exposed? What happens when friends become estranged? In “Queen Of Earth” these questions play in the sandbox of the horror genre. Characters don’t walk, they lurk and pace and peer around corners and through windows. Several times Catherine rubs her face complaining that it hurts, that bones are grinding up against her skin. At a dinner party scene, the camera shares Catherine’s perspective in a hallucinatory lap around the kitchen, prodded by people and questions with a nightmarish quality.
“You can get out of someone else’s cycle, but you can’t get out of your own,” Virginia says at one point, and you feel as though it applies to all of Perry’s characters. It even applies to you watching his films, which suck you into their morose environments. That’s mostly because they begin and end in similar spots. The Color Wheel opens and closes with brother and sister in a driveway while Listen Up Phillip follows Schwartzman, in the first and last scene, miserably scuffling through city streets. Queen Of Earth returns somewhere similar, too — to a haunting cry from Waterston and a wicked laugh by Moss. In other words, Perry is just reiterating Virginia’s point. You can leave the world behind and try to break away from the past, but at the end of the day, you still have to deal with yourself.