Woman on the Verge: Haunting "Queen of Earth" descends into madness with spectacular Elisabeth Moss

Queen of Earth (2015)
90 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

With 2014's acidic character study "Listen Up Philip," writer-director Alex Ross Perry carved out a real niche for seeing the flawed, human side of people—self-absorbed, snippy, unpleasant—but it proved that movies about insufferable people can sometimes grow insufferable, too. "Queen of Earth" is an even more demanding animal, as it's anything but cheery in tracking the disintegration of a prickly, symbiotic female friendship and a descent into madness for one of the women. Led by two courageous performances by Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, the film is a spectacular acting showcase but also a fascinatingly moody and intimate psychodrama that eats away at the viewer's senses and comfort levels. Comparisons to anything by Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965), Woody Allen's "Interiors" (1978), and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011) would not be unwarranted.

From the one-two punch of her New York City artist father's suicide and a painful breakup from a boyfriend with whom she became co-dependent, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) is having a really hard time. With an easel in tow, she ends up retreating to best friend Virginia's (Katherine Waterston) parents' vacant lake house for a week of R&R in the serene woods. Instead, tension is thick and a mutual resentment sucks out all the oxygen in the house, particularly when Catherine is unhappy to find out Virginia is now dating a neighbor named Rich (Patrick Fugit), who sees Catherine as an entitled brat and isn't shy about letting her know that. Eventually, Virginia realizes her once-dear friend has lost all composure and begun a mental collapse, but Catherine is the only one without a clue.

Alarmingly haunting as a chamber piece that unfolds with horror-tinged foreboding and unease, "Queen of Earth" remains controlled and subtle, while slicing deep into the psyche and memories of an emotionally heightened Catherine. From frame one, the tone is set. Elisabeth Moss is unblinkingly raw and shattered as Catherine, who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. The camera remains tight on her face, smeared of mascara from all of her crying. She is more than upset; she is boiling with rage and in accusatory mode. With the double loss of both her late father and her boyfriend, Catherine loses her sense of entitlement. Under the best circumstances, Virginia and Catherine are able to sit and open up about their past relationships with other men, but then the sudden presence of Virginia's new boyfriend, Rich (Patrick Fugit), is just one more catalyst for Catherine's paranoia. Catherine was hoping it would just be her and Virginia, but this time, her stay is a counterpoint to last year's stay when Virginia was put off by Catherine and her boyfriend. As Virginia tells Catherine, "Well, we should switch places — see how we feel then." 

Discomfort is the name of the game to the gutting end, and writer-director Alex Ross Perry knows to make the viewer squirm. In two particular instances, Catherine spits a carefully literate monologue of pure venom at Rich that one is surprised she only uses her words and doesn't reach across the table to stab him, and then the horror of Catherine's breakdown externalizes itself when she experiences a dreamlike nightmare at a party Virginia hosts at the house where all of the guests may or may not hover over her like the coven of satanic high-rise residents in "Rosemary's Baby." When Catherine begins unraveling, Moss is unshakable and startlingly eerie, finding a wide range of emotions before her character's descent into madness (the film was unconventionally shot in order). Complementing Moss' performance, Katherine Waterston is asked to be the least showy of the two but no less captivates as the aloof but comparably stable Virginia as the cracks in her friendship with Catherine rip apart what they once had.

Never has the wilting of an untouched salad at Catherine's bedside ever mirrored the deterioration of one's mental state. Emotionally cool, cuttingly blunt and palpably claustrophobic, "Queen of Earth" hits a raw nerve with chilling daring but also depicts a downward mental spiral and depression with the utmost honesty and the least amount of melodrama. Alex Ross Perry's filmmaking instincts and command of mood are distinctly masterful here, surrounding himself closely with such talented collaborators to make his film of a piece. Evoking the last strands of Catherine's sanity, Keegan DeWitt's dissonant, classically ominous score is like a nightmare of piercing wind-chime clanging and doom-laden piano keys, and Sean Price Williams' 16mm lensing is gorgeously naturalistic in capturing the isolation of the lakeside setting and overwhelmingly close to the trauma at hand. Ultimately, though, the film is anchored by the mesmerizing performances Perry wrings out of his two actresses who are more than up to the task of challenging themselves. Even when one feels anxious to get out of the house and run far away from these two characters, one still can't turn away from their disturbing plight.

Grade: B +