From the very first moment in Queen of Earth, you are instantly captivated. It begins in a very unconventional manner – Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) sits, an emotional wreck, screaming and weeping at her boyfriend who is about to leave her. We are not given any context or explanation, but the camera stays on her as we see her breakdown – and right from the next moment, when the title of the film comes up (which looks remarkably similar to the opening titles of classic 1970s psychological dramas), we are thrust into the world of Catherine, and we go on this journey with her – a journey where we are guided through a woman slowly losing her mind.
Basically, Queen of Earth revolves around Catherine, who has just broken up with her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and in order to heal herself, she retreats to the lake house home of her best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Thinking it will be a relaxing week with her closest friend, Catherine is horrified to discover that Virginia is a very different person, and she has taken up a new boyfriend in Rich (Patrick Fugit) – what follows is not a week of healing, but days of psychological torture, as Catherine is slowly driven to insanity, but we are never quite sure why – is she the cause of her own insanity, or are external factors causing her complete breakdown? By the time this film ends, we are not quite sure exactly what we watched – but it was certainly very different, and most definitely incredibly unique on all accounts.
The most notable star of this film is the camera – somehow, director Alex Ross Perry (who directed the equally brilliant Listen Up Phillip a few years ago) brings out the tension and incredibly disturbing nature of this film through only use of the camera, which often lingers on characters a bit too long than is normally accepted, and shows the events of this film in angles that are something unnatural and quite frankly even disturbing. It is not often that I think the cinematography of a film is the most notable aspect, particularly when it is a character-driven drama like this. It is important to note that a great achievement in cinematography isn’t necessarily achieved through long-shots and beautiful scenery (as we often see), but through showing a film in a way that makes us make note of what the film is trying to tell us. Queen of Earth weaves through incredibly complex character development by juxtaposing it with cinematography that makes us feel uneasy and as uncomfortable as the characters in the film, which is a remarkable achievement.
The performances in Queen of Earth are truly something to behold – and the limited cast is perfect for this kind of claustrophobic and bizarre psychological thriller. This film is carried by its two leads – Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. These are two actresses that haven’t been given very good opportunities, and while Waterston did have somewhat of a breakthrough in Inherent Vice, it perhaps wasn’t the film to allow her to breakthrough, because she didn’t do very much other than just exist as an idea and driving point of the film. Elisabeth Moss was brilliant for several years on Mad Men, but has recently taken the leap towards independent film, and with this film, along with Listen Up Phillip and a few more, she is turning herself into an indie darling, and her performance in Queen of Earth is something like you’ve never seen before – she is complex and fascinating and terrifying – and if it were not for Charlotte Rampling’s brilliant and heartbreaking performance in 45 Years, Moss would easily be my choice for best performance of 2015. Moss makes Catherine into a layered character, and her descent into madness is truly one of the most intense performances we’ve seen in a very long time. Waterston is equally complex, and often very funny as Virginia, the sarcastic and bitter best friend who spends most of the film being sarcastic, vitriolic and rude, and gives some particular pointed jabs at her suffering friend, who truly needs her help. Both actresses are truly unbelievable, and this film proves that they should be offered better films, because they are wonderful.
I’m a sucker for films inspired by other films and filmmakers – and Queen of Earth is an abundance of riches when it comes to inspirations – I found a myriad of references and homages to some filmmakers and their films that came before, and it was clear that Alex Ross Perry was making a film based on his own inspirations. It would be pointless to list them all, but the major ones include Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (the game of psychological cat-and-mouse, played by two women), the early films of Roman Polanski (the uneasy and disturbingly off-center tone of this film), Robert Altman’s 3 Women (a dark examination of mundane lives) and above all, John Cassavetes, the patron saint of these kinds of independent psychological dramas. I often call Jim Jarmusch the Godfather of Independent Cinema (and I stand by it, there are rarely any independent films made in the last two decades that are not inspired by Jarmusch), but John Cassavetes was the man who set the boundaries for Jarmusch to make his films. Cassavetes reveled in dark examinations of life, and in particular, one must consider his collaborations with his wife, Gena Rowlands, when looking at Queen of Earth, particularly A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. The legacy of Cassavetes still exists to this day, and with films like Queen of Earth, it lives on.
Queen of Earth is a brilliant film – and it has some truly amazing monologues, one of which is performed by Moss near the end of the film, and left me in absolute shock. The writing is sharp, pointed and very revealing, and one needs to be prepared to be thoroughly disturbed, mainly because of the truth that exists within this film. Moss and Waterston are absolutely brilliant, and both of which give performances that are highlights of their career. Alex Ross Perry is certainly a filmmaker to watch for, because his star continues to rise, and he is going to end up with a major success very soon. Queen of Earth is a brilliant and very fun film, and it left me shocked and bewildered, but also very exhilarated. It is cinema at its very best.