Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) already has plenty of faults—a once-renowned expert on cults, he’s now lost a TV show, a marriage and the rights to his latest book—but he’s looking for one more. To be specific, two worried parents (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) hope that he can rescue 28-year-old Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from the grip of a group known simply as “Faults.” Being significantly indebted to his manager (Jon Gries) and all-but living out of his car, Ansel agrees to kidnap their daughter and subject her to a week-long “deprogramming” session (even though his only other attempt backfired quite publicly).
Anyone familiar with writer/director Riley Stearns’ short films (his most recent, “The Cub,” being a personal favorite) will be happy to hear that his first feature, “Faults,” maintains his droll sense of humor and unnerving use of framing while telling a rather different tale of parents trying to retrieve their daughter from would-be custodians. The laughs are fewer and farther between once Ansel and Claire are confined to a non-descript hotel room, but for the sake of the first act, those countless humiliations are vital to empathizing with an otherwise petty, insecure has-been of a protagonist, one constantly assaulted in Coen-esque fashion when not pocketing just about anything in sight.
The lion’s share of the credit belongs to Orser, long marginalized as a bit player (you may remember him screaming in “Se7en,” or screaming in “Alien: Resurrection,” or screaming in “Very Bad Things”) before Snoot Films decided to put him to good use in both this and “The Guest.” (Each currently making the festival rounds, the two projects share a number of actors and producers.) He effortlessly embodies Ansel as both long-suffering sadsack and trusted authority figure, and he holds his own opposite Winstead (“Smashed,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”), giving yet another fragile, commanding performance as a young woman caught between oppressive parents, a well-meaning captor and her own brainwashed persona. Claire (who doesn’t care for that name anymore) points out that Faults takes its own name from seismic and psychic pressures alike, and after being steeped in Ansel’s unyielding stress, it’s not hard to recognize the appeal of such a self-actualizing mentality. Their quicksilver dynamic together isn’t just the focus of the film; it’s reason enough to see it.
While many of their shared scenes might have easily resulted in a stagy two-hander, Stearns’ reliance on static shots, complemented almost exclusively by slow zooms and pans (Pakula’s paranoia thrillers of the ‘70s come to mind) and subtly dated production design (the 1980s, perhaps) put a very deliberate focus on the players, who all rise to the occasion. Grant and Ellis provide a welcome emotional urgency whenever Gries and Lance Reddick (as his enforcer) aren’t serving as more threatening motivators for Ansel’s much-needed success. They color in the margins of an ageless story about how relationships are defined by who wants control and who actually wields it. “Faults” is a strangely funny, often eerie accomplishment, and it’s a testament to why people like us tend to call first features like this “promising.” [B+]