Queen of Earth

Posted by Joel Copling on August 26, 2015

It is late into "Queen of Earth" when Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) finally breaks. To be more accurate, she lays into the target of her venom like so much verbal carpet-bombing, but the kicker is that the speech, which skimps on neither profanity nor purpose, is not shouted, as would be the custom with a speech like this, but stated with a rage more akin to calm. In fact it is almost whispered. It would be enough to reduce anyone to blubbering tears in a fetal position, but its delivery is certainly curious. Whether it is in the way screenwriter Alex Ross Perry (who also directed) wrote the dialogue or in the way Moss performs the sequence, it holds enormous power when it comes--seventy minutes of build-up to this moment when her resolve has long since withered away and the implosion occurs.

One year ago, Catherine was happily dating James (Kentucker Audley) upon visiting a cabin on an islet with her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston); now, she is broken in many respects: Her relationship ended when he was unfaithful, her father has died ("Depression killed [him]," says Virginia, which pretty much covers it), and now she's back in this place of formerly happy memories. It's a bit too much process, as is the re-entry of Rich (Patrick Fugit), a neighbor with whom Virginia strikes up a romantic relationship. He barely asked her about herself the year before; this year, he's just nosy. The disruption of this return that was supposed to be cause for relaxation, coupled with the probability that she has inherited her father's downfall, is the film's narrative and thematic backbone.

So, no, this is not reliant on heavy plotting. It's a small movie, both in length (under an hour and a half sans credits) and in scope (Only one scene is not set in or around the cabin), but as an exhibition in the power of great performance art, here are Moss, whose emotional deterioration somehow enhances the actress's beauty by the end, and Waterston, whose Virginia can barely keep her composure on the behalf of her friend. These are two great performances, playing off the heightened tension between the women in the present sequences, whom it hard to believe are actually friends, given what transpires and has previously transpired between them.

Sequences here are shot by Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams as jittery extensions on Catherine's psychosis (Notice how the lake surrounding the cabin takes on a strangely kaleidoscopic appearance when Catherine goes boating with Virginia and Rich), while the score by Keegan DeWitt is instrumental (no pun intended) in raising the tension in entirely organic ways (such as a sequence in which everyone attending a house party seems to converge upon Catherine--or do they?) and the editing by Robert Greene is precision in opposition to the aforementioned jittery quality (This, if nothing else, seems to be homage to the films of the late, great Ingmar Bergman, which in contrast were pristine productions of sometimes messy themes and spiritual exhaustion).

And it's curious to consider that the film also begins with a type of meltdown. Perry's camera keeps on Catherine's face as it all burns to the ground. This is a woman broken by a series of blows too close together for even the comfort of recovering from each, separate blow. The explosion, then, comes as a surprise only because it opens the movie. There have been aspersions cast at Catherine by other viewers claiming that she's unlikable, and indeed, her character's arc is not pretty. But being "likable" sometimes isn't the point. At the core of "Queen of Earth" is a tragic character who doesn't have a respite from grief, and behavior has no need for decorum in this case. Any small irritation can trigger a volcano of emotion in those prone to it, and just look at the result.

Film Information

Elisabeth Moss (Catherine), Katherine Waterston (Virginia), Patrick Fugit (Rich), Kentucker Audley (James), Keith Poulson (Keith), Kate Lyn Sheil (Michelle).

Directed and written by Alex Ross Perry.

No MPAA rating.

90 minutes.

Released in New York City on August 26, 2015.