Elisabeth Moss mesmerizes as a woman slowly descending into madness while her best friend quietly looks on.
Queen of Earth
Recently, the staff here at Way Too Indie put together a list of independent films we thought Alfred Hitchcock might have made if The Master of Suspense had come up in the Kickstarter Era. There were some great choices, including Mulholland Dr. and Stoker, while my pick was The Usual Suspects. It’s too bad that assignment came before I had the chance to screen Queen of Earth. The psychological drama not only invokes Hitch, it screams Hitch.
Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) is a young woman on the ropes, having recently lost her father and been dumped by her boyfriend. Reeling from these impactful events, she looks to get away from it all by spending a week with Ginny (Katherine Waterston), an old and dear friend whose parents have a gorgeous and secluded lakeside vacation home. The retreat, however, proves less than helpful. Memories of happier times at the vacation home—times when Catherine’s (now-ex) boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) was also a guest—surface to wrack Catherine’s conscience. Agitating things further are Ginny’s passive/aggressive behavior towards Catherine and the perpetual presence of Ginny’s neighbor/plaything Rich (Patrick Fugit), who takes a peculiar antagonistic approach when dealing with Catherine. Difficult memories and constant defensiveness take a grinding toll on Catherine’s already frail psyche, driving her deeper into despair and paranoia.
Queen of Earth is far more than just an exercise in observing one woman’s psyche slowly unravel, although it’s certainly that. The film opens at Catherine’s emotional Ground Zero; dismissed by a cheating boyfriend while reeling from the loss of her father. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s extreme close-ups on Moss are startling, revealing bloodshot eyes and a reddened nose and makeup ruined beyond repair, all from a recent (and clearly heavy) crying jag.
From here, Perry avoids the worn path of a woman making bad decisions while in an emotional fog. He also avoids presenting a woman who attempts to find herself after a lifetime of being defined by men. Instead, the filmmaker skillfully presents Catherine’s gradual decline within the framework of a larger, but quite intricate, story about friendship and the wages of the sin of pride. The relationship between Catherine and Ginny is strong and certainly has positive roots, but there is something more going on between them.
In addition to a terrific story, the film has many technical strengths, beginning with pop-up flashbacks that vanish almost as quickly as they appear. These brief scenes are critical to establishing the story’s foundation, even as it builds upon itself. It isn’t necessarily parallel storytelling, more a form of context to the present-day action. With masterful editing by Robert Greene and Peter Levinto, these flashbacks take the story between present day and about a year prior. It’s an unsettling technique, but it’s through these glimpses into the past—moments seen through both Catherine and Ginny’s eyes—that we’re allowed a comparison and contrast of how the two friends have changed in a year, and how their core attitudes have not.
Gloriously filmed in 16mm by cinematographer Sean Price Williams and set to a bare, haunting score by Keegan DeWitt, Queen of Earth channels the psychological dramas of the ’60s and ’70s, right down to spot-on title cards in soft pink cursive that mark each day that passes in the week-long story.
The presentation and aesthetics of the film fire on all cylinders, and at the heart of the film is a pair of performances simultaneously different yet complementary. Both are so very good.
As Catherine, Moss is turned loose, her confidence as an actress affording her the luxury of fearlessness. She manages the varying aspects of Catherine expertly, playing a woman freshly scorned and wearing every emotion on her tear-drenched sleeve; playing coy but paranoid conducting mysterious phone calls at random times during the day; and at other times a socially awkward introvert disarmed by an unexpected party. Moss delivers in amazing ways. Conversely, Waterston, as Ginny, is incredibly restrained. Her calm hostess to Moss’s unhinged basket case is at all times cool, almost aloof, with something of a sinister passive/aggressive treatment of Catherine that is captivating.
The tale ends with a devilish ending. To say more would be criminal, but I will add that a second watch of the film—with a full understanding of the ending—is highly recommended, providing a chance to catch the little clues that may be missed during a first watch.
What makes Queen of Earth so Hitchcockian isn’t Catherine’s plummet into madness, but rather how her spiral starts and how it accelerates. Setting it within the company of friends and against a placid backdrop reminds me of something Hitch would do as well, as comfortable surroundings only make the discomfort of psychological drama that much more uncomfortable. As for the roots of Catherine’s madness, I won’t say they are MacGuffins, but the loss of her father and end of a romance are clearly little more than starting points for something much more subtle and far more interesting.