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Sleeper of the Week: Elisabeth Moss in ‘Queen of Earth’

Sleeper of the Week: Elisabeth Moss in 'Queen of Earth'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“Queen of Earth”
Dir: Alex Ross Perry
Criticwire Average: A-

Alex Ross Perry’s fourth film “Queen of Earth” dives into the hearts and minds of women on the brink of madness. Starring Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, the film follows Catherine and Ginny, two best frenemies, while they stay at a country retreat away from New York City. Catherine has recently experience a host of tragedy with the twin catastrophes of her father’s suicide and her ex-boyfriend’s departure, so the retreat is her self-imposed exile away from a world of grief, but the country retreat only amplifies and exacerbates Catherine’s complete and utter mental breakdown. Ginny tries to be sympathetic and help her friend, but she’s routinely frustrated by Catherine’s selfishness and her thin veneer of superiority, plus Ginny’s smirking asshole boyfriend Rich (Patrick Fugit) is always around making Catherine’s situation worse by mocking her to her face. Perry’s film trades on a lot of ’60s and ’70s influences, namely Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy (“The Tenant,” “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby”), Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” plus some Cassavetes claustrophobia and Fassbinder’s mental acuity to boot, but it also feels part and parcel of the young director’s career. Like the protagonists in “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip,” “Queen of Earth” focuses on two supposed friends who hurt each other in an effort to connect because pain and heartbreak is much more memorable than fun and laughter, but Perry has much empathy for his subjects and feels deeply for them, even if he subjects them to caustic insults and psychological torment. Moss is stunning as a woman who’s teetering on the edge of internal chaos, powerfully conveying potent emotional pain through sheer force with an absolute refusal to compromise or render the performance more accessible in any way, but Waterston also shines as her foil, a person who’s trying desperately to help someone for whom it’s too late. Perry’s film will keep you on the edge of your seat not through cheap thrills or flashy gimmicks, but through a grounded, uncomfortable psychological character study.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Scott Tobias, NPR

Without a second’s hesitation, Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” dives right into its heroine’s lowest moment, in medias res. The camera stays close to Catherine’s face, as smears of mascara frame eyes alight with pain, anger and exhaustion; this has been going on a while and we’re just seeing the end of it. Her boyfriend is breaking up with her, which is awful enough, but the timing makes it worse: She’s still reeling from the death of her father, an artist who mentored her, and now the two central figures in her life are gone. This double whammy leads to a psychological breakdown that Perry chronicles with unsettling acuity, but the breakup and the death are merely the catalysts. The cause cuts much deeper. Set over a week in a secluded vacation home in the Hudson River Valley, “Queen of Earth” is a typically dyspeptic film by Perry, whose four features as writer-director all pluck at raw nerves. Perry’s last effort, “Listen Up Philip,” significantly darkened the high-toned literary comedies of directors like Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen, offering two authors whose combined egomania sweeps through their lives like a brush fire. Though the characters in “Queen of Earth” speak their minds as freely and caustically as those in Perry’s other films, it deals with a different form of self-destruction, more internal than external. It’s not about Catherine having too much grief and loss to bear, but about the way they expose her inability to process it all. Hardship runs through her psyche like alcohol filtered through a diseased liver. Read more.

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com

If this all sounds like the set-up for a mumblecore drama, you’re not wrong. And yet “Queen of Earth” has a very different tone than the work of Joe Swanberg. First, there’s the unusual friendship between Virginia and Catherine, two people who can be devastatingly, dangerously honest with each other. They take stabs at each other to see how much the other one will emotionally bleed. They are kind of awful to one another in the way friends know the buttons to push that enemies do not. Ginny accuses Catherine of living in her father’s shadow and tied to her ex-boyfriend, almost as if she’s pushing her friend deeper into depression, knowing she has to face some realities before she can return to normalcy. And Perry very carefully focuses more often on the listener, more interested in the impact of what’s being said on the person who hears it than the act of saying it. That impact pushes Catherine closer to the edge of sanity. She tells a visitor one night, “You know, I could kill you and no one would know,” and Moss delivers the line with just the right mix of humor and truth, as if she’s only half-kidding. Perry also uses ominous music throughout “Queen of Earth,” much like the psychological thrillers from the ’70s that the film sometimes cribs from, raising tension through score as much as action. We feel something bad is going to happen. Will Catherine kill herself? Kill someone else? Her world has shattered and every way in which she defines herself (she even worked for her father) is gone. As she says, “I don’t really feel like I exist anymore.” And Ginny says she cares about Catherine’s recovery, but does she? “Queen of Earth” is terrifying because it is so emotionally unmoored — Catherine is a character with little reason to care about anything or anyone, and Perry and Moss convey the danger of that brilliantly. Read more.

Matt Prigge, Metro

As things proceed, and as Catherine becomes even more undone, the spaces that contain the characters turns grim. The clean, bright summer home, all light-colored wood and wall-sized windows overlooking a disturbingly placid lake, becomes a banal prison. The frequent use of slow zooms and lengthy, invasive close-ups make it feel like they’re being spied on by a sinister force. They aren’t; much worse than imagined boogeymen are what real people can actually do to each other. Perry isn’t being funny this time, though some of Virginia’s sarcasm, particularly in the one-year-earlier flashbacks, show off his peerless gift for the art. But the tone is empathetic if detached, at once acutely observational and sick with mood. It’s not a simplistic, black-and-white study of mental sickness and fractured relationships but one that lives in the in-between spaces. Even a party scene, held when Catherine is at her least social, almost turns silly only to fall back to earth. The whole film works like that: It’s a movie that keeps threatening to turn into a horror film, including the ones that have inspired it. But it stays real and therefore all the more chilling. Read more.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club

Meanwhile, Keegan DeWitt’s dissonant score — which can’t help but bring to mind the arthouse films of the 1960s and ’70s — goes a long way to establishing and maintaining mood, much as the composer’s cool-jazz-style music did for “Listen Up Philip.” That mood is goosebump-inducing unease, often unnervingly in tune with Moss’ performance, which is all the more fascinating because it’s essentially unreadable, positioning Catherine as a figure of both sympathy and threat. Though one would be hard pressed to classify “Queen Of Earth” as a comedy, it isn’t without a sense of humor, and the fact that Catherine’s unraveling happens to be darkly funny helps to further complicate a film already complicated by contrasting styles, deliberate intersections of the archetypal and the closely observed and meshings of pet theme (another country house, another narcissistic father, etc.) and reference. Not all of “Queen Of Earth” gels perfectly — the movie’s variation on the ghoulish party-from-hell, a Perry staple, is a rare bum note, working more as homage than anything else — but when it does, it can be breathtaking. Read more.

Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

There are times in “Queen of Earth” when Mr. Perry, who’s content to skim the surface rather than break it, comes across like an exceptionally gifted student trying his hand at art-cinema pastiche. To that end, it can be entertaining to watch him flip through its playbook, trying out oblique angles and off-center staging while the composer Keegan DeWitt’s dissonant, mood-altering score samples the Euro-style hits. Mr. Perry and his cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, oscillate between fixed and moving cameras, and there’s a terrific scene in which the camera shifts from Catherine to Virginia and back again as each shares a defining story. Ms. Waterston, a Modigliani in motion and often in black, easily holds your attention, but it is Ms. Moss, with her intimate expressivity, who annihilates you from first tear to last crushing laugh. Read more.

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