Queen of Earth, 2015.
Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Kate Lyn Sheil and Craig Butta.
Two women who grew up together discover they have drifted apart when they retreat to a lake house together.
Starting as it means to go on, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth opens on the dishevelled Katherine, played by the exquisitely talented Elisabeth Moss, who may just be the best actress working in Hollywood right now. Red-faced after many minutes of heartache, tears forming aggressively on her face as eye-liner and make-up cascade across her face as the extent of the newest heartbreak unfolds before her eyes. We stay almost exclusively on this rejected, crestfallen face as her now ex-boyfriend James (Audley) tells her he is leaving for another woman mere weeks after her father passed away. One monumental tragedy is enough to send any us off the rails but two in quick succession would send even the sunniest of people tumbling down a dark and dirty rabbit hole into the murky recesses.
It’s from these opening moments that Ross Perry’s latest effort grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Katherine seeks refuge and escape and sets off the a lake house owned by the parents of Virginia (Waterston), a secluded sanctuary normally used to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Surrounded by beautiful foliage and a picturesque lake that is almost too calm, the two ladies ensconce themselves in the tranquillity of the surroundings for a week of rebalance and reflection, but such are the demons rampaging through Katherine’s mind that such calm thoughts are diluted by those of the more prickly nature.
Shot almost entirely in sequence over a 14-day period it is that fluid, linear style that elevates Queen of Earth into the very highest echelons of film-making, that of supreme grandness. From those very first moments, it grapples as we follow two best friends whose supposedly loving friendship is teetering on the brink of exile. What is supposed to be a serene, unruffled period becomes a week of paranoia, mistrust, hysteria and anxiety, with the walls around them leaving nowhere to hide.
Both feel entitled to the calm serene life they have been afforded that has put them as masters of their own universes, but whipped from underneath them both women struggle for both place and power. One sequence, shot in a single take with the camera changing focus from one to another, is particularly fraught as the two sit side by side accounting previous relationships, but rather than engaging as friends would, the two look off into the distance, almost systematically talking in turn rather than over each other: so close yet the chasm is ever increasing, in body and in mind.
Those expecting something more horrific and blood-soaked will be left disappointed for sure, but there isn’t nothing like the horror of something getting right under your skin: like Katherine’s strange face pains she persistently moans about, the film makes every part of you sore, every bone crack, ever hair on the back of head stand up and yes even make you laugh in the darkest of ways. In fact, the film is much funnier than you may be anticipating: as Katherine begins to cackle, we cackle but perhaps not in the same way, but Perry’s wit still as black as night.
Moss, who is arguably enjoying the best post-Mad Men career above all others, is simply astonishing here: fearless and brave, she is superlative throughout in a performance one that should see her in contention for awards if there were any justice. Waterston too is equally impressive as Virginia: the perfect-counter point to Moss’ self-absorbed, precious Katherine, her restraint as the spectator to her friends descent into madness is enthralling.
Perry’s writing is again as biting as never, both devilishly funny and striking uneasy, while his directing is simplistic and slow, allowing the horror simply to unfold without overpowering it, shot so pristinely by Sean Price Williams. There is also composer Keegan DeWitt’s sumptuous score that envelopes the film: beautifully orchestrated to help maintain the levels of suspense and alienation.
While the film will have a somewhat limited audience in amongst today’s cinema line-up, there perhaps isn’t as striking and arresting film as Queen of Earth. Taught, thrilling, biting and exceptionally powerful, Ross Perry continues his ascent as one of the most stimulating directors working today, and with Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston’s mesmeric turns, you’ll be hard pressed to find something as impressive as this.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Scott Davis is a Senior Staff Writer at Flickering Myth and co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast.