For lovers of intelligent suspense and sickly dark humor, Faults is home.
Movies are a lot like cults. Think about it; strangers gather in a dark room to silently absorb a story directed, and often written as well, by one person (the leader) and told with the help of cast and crew (the cult members.) While not based on membership, the audience leaves the theater either as supporters or critics. This analogy may work better with some movies over others (the Transformers franchise is more like a corporation than a cult), but it certainly works with Riley Stearns’ fantastic indie genre gem Faults, and not just because the film’s primary subject is saving an innocent girl from an enigmatic cult. It’s an original feature debut, a compelling chamber piece boasting fantastic performances, and so soaked in charisma that it’s almost impossible not to be enchanted from hilarious start to insatiable finish.
Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is a washed-up mind control expert who is touring with his new book, and stealing restaurant vouchers from garbage bags in the process. The book is not as successful as its predecessor, and his agent Terry cuts him off, demanding full payment for the money Ansel owes him within the week. Ansel’s seminars fail to spark enthusiasm from the half-empty conference rooms, apart from a man who blames him for his sister’s death, and an elderly couple who seek his help regarding their daughter. After refusing them at first, Ansel is compelled to help when he realizes that he has no other way to pay Terry. Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has left her home to join a cult that goes by the name of Faults and Ansel promises that he’ll do his best to “de-program” her, and bring her back home. Over the next five days, Ansel’s session with Claire results in dire psychological consequences.
Its premiere at SXSW earlier in the year started off the buzz (with our very own Dustin loving it to bits,) but Faults massively blinked on my radar when it was announced for Montreal’s genre festival Fantasia simply because I’ve become a bona fide Winstead fan, after her stunning performance in 2012’s Smashed. The streak continues here; she peels off Claire’s layers with agility and complete composure to reveal a fascinating and devilishly twisted character. But the pedestal has room for one more name: Mr. Leland Orser. As soon as you see him in the brilliant opening diner sequence, you’ll most likely go “oh yeah, that guy!” because he’s one of those actors you’re bound to have spotted somewhere. Examples include Liam Neeson’s buddy Sam from the Taken movies, the traumatized man who was forced to kill the prostitute in Seven, and countless TV appearances. Not that I’ve seen everything he’s been in, but dollars to doughnuts he’s never been as good as Ansel Roth, a role that proves how underrated and underused Orser has been all these years. It’s likely to remain one of the strongest male performances of the year.
As with any successful cult, its members are only as good as its leader (or so I’ve heard anyway), and the two leads wouldn’t have been able to pull off such startlingly good performances without Riley Stearns’ script and direction. The pitch black humor keeps the pacing of Faults at intoxicating levels; slow-burning yet never dull, with every scene crucial to the development of character, plot, and theme, more often than not all three at once. So controlled is the direction and so intelligent the screenplay, that it’s almost hard to believe this is Stearns’ first crack at features.
I’ve been joking around with the idea of cults in this review because Faults‘ shifty tone welcomes a lighter approach to the subject compared to, say, Martha Marcy May Marlene. If there’s something for critics to latch onto it could be that, but not me. Genre filmmaking is an end in itself, never pretentious, and always more about the journey than the destination. The simmering tension, controlled by Stearns at meticulous temperature levels, comes to such an entertaining climactic boil that it will have me cheering and supporting Faults, its leader and all of its members, for a long time to come. For lovers of intelligent suspense and sickly dark humor, Faults is home.
(Originally published on July 25, 2014 as part of our Fantasia festival coverage)