The mind is more a villain than a savage slasher obscured by the shadows of society, and Queen of Earth, a modern soul sister to 3 Women, Repulsion, and Persona, is scarier than any horror movie to come out in the last five years — it’s based more on the possibility of someone becoming unhinged rather than the reality of them changing from an average citizen into a monster. Paranoia suffocates our senses as we dance about in a haze of eeriness, attempting to grab a sense of calm out of thin air as our anxiety pulses away. Directed by Alex Ross Perry, who recently captured the hearts of critics for his universally acclaimed Listen Up Philip, and co-produced by mumblecore great Joe Swanberg, one might expect Queen of Earth to be trite indie fare perhaps too specific to appeal to a wide audience. But Queen of Earth, with its ferocious ability to magnetize the viewer with its frantic energy, has potential to become an art-house classic analyzed by cinephile generations to come. It’s too haunting, too mysterious to ever really let go.
It treads into the darkest depths of depression. Its victim is Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), a once sunny twenty-something whose life spirals out of control after her world-famous artist father commits suicide and her boyfriend dumps her. As the film opens, we see her at her worst: immediately after her lover breaks the news that he’s been seeing someone else. Her mascara runs fluidly from her eyelashes, sweat smothering her hair and face. She’s never felt pain like this before. The two men she’s been dependent on for much of her life have suddenly abandoned her, with no one to turn to.
The one exception is Virginia (Katherine Waterston), her childhood friend who invites her up for a quiet week in her parents’ luxurious cabin. Secluded from the outside world and undeniably serene, it would be a vacation home of anyone’s dreams — but for Catherine, it’s a breeding ground of oppression ready to squeeze the life out of what’s left of her sanity. Things get even worse when Virginia begins inviting her neighbor (Patrick Fugit) over for drinks and make-out sessions; Catherine despises him not necessarily because he’s done anything to her but because the mere presence of a man is enough to sting her psyche like a family of pissed off hornets.
Flashbacks reveal that, just a year ago, Catherine and Virginia’s roles were reversed. What was supposed to be a calming weekend of female bonding turned into a game of awkward third wheelmanship, as Catherine and her boyfriend invested in much alone time, while Virginia, reeling from a personal tragedy, was forced to recover with her best friend only half by her side. Virginia seems to find a certain satisfaction when hit with the realization that she is now the stronger while Catherine is the more damaged of the two, but as it becomes ever apparent that Catherine is inching toward complete mental collapse, the situation turns unrelentingly anxious.
The scintillating use of a ‘70s horror-reminiscent score (courtesy of Keenan DeWitt) constantly suggests that something awful is going to happen. And though nothing besides Gena Rowlands-style devastations make themselves known, Queen of Earth has the feel of a psychological thriller ready to explode and ready to head in a direction of regrettable carnage. Catherine’s unpredictable behavior makes her a sort of villain, threatening to cause harm at every waking moment, and Virginia’s snarky presence makes it unclear as to whether or not she actually considers the woman she’s vacationing with as a real friend. They like to toy with each other, to push the other to a mini-breaking point. Their venomous relationship is frightening in itself — what if your biggest danger is not bodily harm but rather the whipping of psychological scars left by the people closest to you?
The chemistry between Moss and Waterston is comparable to the relationship between Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson merely because every word that comes out of their mouths, every reaction, feels vital when putting the overall aura of the film into perspective. Moss, one of the leading stars of TV’s Mad Men, which ended earlier this year, gives the performance of her career: voracious and fearless, she soars as a character unhinged in her every action. Waterston, fantastic in last year’s unforgettable Inherent Vice, is the perfect foil for the crazy that is Moss — her louring passive aggression makes for startling contrast with the frenzied depravity of her costar.
Queen of Earth is sure to become a lost classic rediscovered twenty-years from now by Bergman/Polanski enthusiasts who ran out of films to fawn over. While it may seem minor now, there is no denying the mastery of Perry’s filmmaking aesthetics — nor the acting triumphs of Moss and Waterston. A-