Austin-based director Riley Stearns' short film "The Cub," which preceded his feature-length debut "Faults," revolved around the comically bizarre scenario of a straight-faced couple who send their daughter off to live with wolves, and concluded with a surprise finale. "Faults" also involves a strange relationship between a daughter and her parents with more going on than initially meets the eye, and unfolds with a similar mixture of comedy and creepiness. The longer format gives Stearns more room to play with tone, and the strongest aspects of "Faults" stem from its completely unpredictable atmosphere. You might anticipate the twists before they arrive, but not the way they feel.
Much of the odd comedic formula emerges from a pair of carefully orchestrated lead performances: Character actor Leland Orser delivers a fascinatingly offbeat turn as downtrodden author Ansel Roth, an expert in deprogramming brainwashed cult members, while Stearns' wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the young woman he's hired to deprogram. Delivering an icy, cryptic performance that ranks among her best — and exists a world apart from her role as a messy alcoholic in "Smashed — Winstead's frequently inscrutable expression epitomizes this unique movie's enigmatic appeal.
Stearns' blacklisted script finds the grouchy Ansel at wit's end: He's first seen attempting to use an expired restaurant voucher at the hotel where he's invited to speak, then whining to a small crowd at his lecture when nobody buys his book. It seems as though things can't get any worse when he's confronted by the relative of a deceased cult member driven mad by his deprogramming process, but then a debt collector (Lance Reddick) shows up to represent Ansel's furious publisher. Latching onto the only opportunity in front of him, he accepts a desperate request from an elderly couple claiming their daughter Claire (Winstead) has been taken in by a pseudo-religious movement she refuses to leave. In short order, the scheming Ansel has kidnapped the woman and locked her in a hotel room, where the majority of the story takes place.
Now seen in full bloom, Stearns' approach to storytelling maintains a quirky rhythm that emphasizes speedy, insinuative dialogue, and his penchant for labyrinthine black comedy has shades of the Coen brothers. But "Faults" is less ostentatious than anything in either oeuvre. Instead, Stearns' narrative focuses on the curious nature of the brainwashing process through the constant misdirection of its minimalist premise. The increasingly weird nature of the proceedings don't only fixate on mind control; they engage in it.
Even so, "Faults" has an uneven quality that doesn't always click. Ansel's ironic distance from his own self-destruction makes it hard to believe he's any good at the career that put him on the map, and nothing he says to Claire during the course of their deprogramming session can match the depth implied by their performances. At times the story's noir-like qualities don't quite synch with Ansel's outwardly silly personality, and a series of references to a dark chapter in his past never reach a satisfying amount of definition. For a movie with a lot on its mind, a good amount of its narrative has a half-baked quality that's more interesting to pull apart in retrospect than to experience.
But Stearns eventually directs the meandering narrative into a bewildering third act that subverts expectations and leaves plenty of ambiguity in play. As the pair engage in a hypnotic conversation while locked in the hotel room bathroom, the power dynamic quietly shifts, and the mood goes with it. One character describes a fault as "a place where pressure builds and builds until it releases," but that's also a potent description of the eerie spell that the movie casts on its audience.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sure to divide audiences, Stearns' film could nonetheless find a solid reception in limited release with a distributor willing to play up its mysteries. It should maintain a solid presence on the festival circuit.
Read more coverage of this year's SXSW Film Festival here.