Queen of Earth. 2015. Directed & Written by Alex Ross Perry.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, and Kate Lyn Sheil. Washington Square Films.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Opening with such a tightly framed shot of Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine, Alex Ross Perry completely submerges us immediately into her world. Not to mention she’s in an absolute state of disarray and her temper is flaring, her makeup smeared and running. There are plenty of tight close-ups on Catherine moving on through the film, but it’s this almost shocking, jarring opener of her face, in our face, vulnerable and weeping, angry, emotional, which sets the tone of the film. Furthermore, I love how Perry has the title card come up in a hot pink colouring, as it sort of gives things an interesting little twist – as if everything’s fine on top, the pink like the makeup, yet underneath things are wrecked. A nice start to an oddly beautiful film.
From there, Queen of Earth descends into a spiral of broken friendship, jealousy, treacherous relationships, and a general atmosphere of dread and madness. For a movie that isn’t horror, it’s awfully scary. A lot of filmgoers seem to see this is as partly a comedy, though, for the life of me I cannot figure that one out. There’s nothing funny to me here. Not even in the darkly comic sense, which is the type of comedy I personally love most. Mostly this is full of terrifying reality, perched upon two vastly different but equally impressive performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Above all else Perry crafted an excellent and classic style thriller out of a mess of emotions and psychological torment.
A big problem I have is that I see so many people online bashing this movie because, supposedly, nothing happens. First of all, it troubles me how many of these same people also admitted they’d pirated it. So right away, I honestly have no regard for that opinion; you stole it, didn’t enjoy it, well fuck off. Honestly, if you can’t shell out a couple bucks to watch a movie online as opposed to going to theatre, which yes is damn expensive these days, well why should I care what your opinion is? It’s the same as if you start to heed the opinions of people who don’t actually pay to go to art galleries but rather they look at Polaroids of the artwork and then critique it. Regardless of what you thought about this film, a lot of people worked on it, just as you work at your job, and then people go ahead and pirate that hard work, giving nothing back, what does that say? It’s sad, whatever it says.
Secondly, I have to say that it’s fine if you don’t dig this type of film – the quiet, slow burning style that’s more focused on dialogue and character than action, whether big or small. Queen of Earth is more like a play, as we’re focused mainly on two characters – a couple others sort of in the wings in smaller supporting roles – and the bulk of the plot takes place in a single claustrophobic type of location. That’s part of what I love, as those who say “nothing happens” are SO WRONG. You really think nothing at all happens? Maybe you didn’t listen to all the fascinating dialogue between Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, or did you miss all the palpable tension going on during scenes with Moss and Patrick Fugit? I don’t know. Might do well with seeing the film again. Because for me, a ton happens in this movie and the plot pops right out of the frame, grips ahold of your neck, and refuses to let go until the very last shot. A movie doesn’t have to have a ton of action – by action, I don’t solely mean car crashes and explosions, I mean action as in big sequences – and I think Alex Ross Perry knows that, more than well. I’ve not actually seen any of his other films, but now I’m determined to go back and watch them. They’re surely not all like this, as there’s a genuine air of old school psychological thriller throughout Queen of Earth, but it’s obvious in this one film alone he knows how to focus in on character, as well as relationships between characters, and how to draw out the tension in normal, everyday type situations; so much of that happens here from beginning to end.
I’ll get to Elisabeth Moss and her performance as Catherine afterwards. I’d like to talk about Virginia to begin; the character wonderfully played by Katherine Waterston. While clearly, painfully obvious that Catherine has some deep issues, it seems to me certain filmgoers are ignoring altogether how damaged Virginia is in her own right. Starting out early on, within the first 15 minutes, there’s a flashback scene between Virginia and Catherine, the latter with her saccharinely sweet boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) around – they talk about codependency, needing the other person in a relationship and what would happen if there was a breakup, et cetera. This is very telling. What we come to see is that not only does Catherine seem to be highly codependent
One way we can see the already glaringly obvious parallel in the situations of Catherine and Virginia is the boyfriends. Though the Kentucker Audley and Patrick Fugit characters are vastly different, the obviousness lies in the women themselves. They’re like a figurative tennis match, each of them batting the ball with equal force, mirroring the charge of the other. For instance, at the beginning we see James (Audley) calling Virginia ‘Ginny’, which she continually says is what close friends call her and advises him not to; not long after, James again calls her Ginny, she once more chastises him for it. A year later, once the situations have been reversed, Rich (Fugit) does the exact same thing to Catherine that James did – he calls her ‘Kay’, over and over despite the fact she tells him not to. What’s most interesting is that it’s not something initiated by either of the women, it’s something springing organically from these people, as if Catherine and Virginia are somehow willing it out of the universe.
Or is it? I also wonder if Virginia provoked Rich into taunting Catherine with the ‘Kay’ nickname in retaliation for how she perceived her friend to have treated her that year before. Because something strikes me as highly childish about Virginia. Each of these women are somewhat spoiled in terms of money – both of them have/had parents you’d most likely classify as rich – and so I think they’ve got their individual tendencies. But what’s telling in terms of why I think Virginia is especially childish is a scene where she and her boyfriend Rich (Fugit) are laughing in their room – when Catherine comes up quietly towards the door, Virginia won’t look at her and Rich goes to the door, without a word, closing it in Catherine’s face. Virginia and Rich giggle behind the door like two children, as Catherine stands for a moment outside, hurt, confused, then walks away. I thought this moment spoke VOLUMES in regards to Virginia particularly.
Because essentially, we’re seeing a back and forth duel between these two, supposedly, best friends who wound one another like a violently psychological and emotionally unstable game of tag. Instead of standing together, they fall harder and harder apart as the scant 90 minute runtime of Queen of Earth rolls on. This relationship is what sets up so much of the incredible tension within. Bottom line it comes down to the fact these two women are more interested in boosting their own egos than helping each other, neither wanting to be the bigger person and instead tearing their friend apart even worse at the seams.
Not only is the perpetually depressed and anxious character of Catherine written well by Perry, the way in which Elisabeth Moss inhabits the character is out of this world. I’m not a fan of Mad Men. However, after I saw Moss in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, I became really impressed with her abilities as an actor. She has this very quiet and subtle presence about her, yet there are scenes where she has the ability to take hold of everything near, hauling the scenes down around her and just scorching the earth; I mean this, if it’s not clear, in a hugely positive way. I’ll say it: my top favourite performance of 2015. There is no doubt about it. Starting at the first frame, closed in tight on her weepy, angry face, I was utterly taken with Moss and her portrayal of Catherine. There’s a feeling going into this film you might be expecting something big, loud, brash, yet she surprises by keeping things low-key. Still, there is always a gripping sense of tone when she’s onscreen, whether she is being emotionally intense or quiet and withdrawn. I do love Waterston in this movie. There’s simply an undeniably awesome quality to Moss and her performance, throughout every last scene; not once did I find myself watching her and wanting more, or feeling there ought to be less, rather I continually felt impressed with everything she did.
The score from Keegan DeWitt lays just beneath the surface, like a thin layer of skin beneath the outer edges. At times the pieces are genuinely unsettling, others it’s like a swell is happening and at any moment things might burst, shattering the world in Queen of Earth to pieces. Most of all, the music fits so well in every scene of the film. For me, it’s DeWitt who adds so much of the uneasiness and terrible feeling inherent in the atmosphere of the film, he gives the screenplay and Perry’s direction a dream-like and also nightmarish quality. It’s amazing, really. Even in one scene as Virginia is out running, faded into a scene of Catherine generally not taking care of herself (eating crackers/chips and drinking pop in the morning), there’s a haunting piece with a flute riff on top of some electronic style sounds which sucks you into a weird state and kind of sticks to your skin a while. Great, great score. I think my favourite bits are the extremely foreboding pieces – you’ll know which ones – full of the horns and low woodwinds, then undercut with these deep and growling electronic rumbles.
Music and cinematography can go together hand in hand as lovers if the work is done correctly. Queen of Earth has that with DeWitt’s compositions pairing together with the camerawork of Sean Price Williams. One thing I love in terms of Williams’ cinematography here is how the close-ups really pull the viewer directly into this world. In particular, there’s a great scene with Catherine and Virginia where they’re recounting past relationships, bad ones, and there’s this great profile-like set of shots of the two talking, listening; reminds me very much of an Ingmar Bergman film at times, honestly. These perfect shots, peppered everywhere throughout the film, make the emotional and psychological weight of the screenplay resonate long and wide. Without such gorgeous looking visuals, I don’t think the film would have near as much depth, so I’m glad the look of the movie fits so well with the screenplay and its themes.
One of the 5 star films of 2015 and one of my favourites. It’s hard to talk about Queen of Earth without giving away the ending, even though some will still bark “nothing happens”. To them I say, go watch something else. Lots happens, it’s just not full of big sequences where a ton of characters are jumping about, each spewing expository dialogue to further the story. Instead, Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is a deeply unnerving and raw snapshot of the nervous breakdown of one woman, as well as the breakdown of a long relationship between two old friends, accompanied by an astounding score composed by Keegan DeWitt and the lush visuals of Sean Price Williams.
If you’re not into slowly paced pieces of film with all its focus centred on character and emotionality, then I suggest to not even bother. Really. Because if not, you’re only going to find yourself bored. However, if you can handle a slower pace for 90 minutes, and you’re able to sit through the brutish reality of two friends falling to pieces, one far worse than the other, then this is for you! It can get tough to watch at times if you let the plot and story sink into you, but the rewards are well worth the effort. This film brought me back to some of Bergman’s work, even one of my favourite movies of all time Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and yet it’s a completely separate and unique masterpiece all on its own.
The ending has stuck with me. Even the entire final half hour is UNBELIEVABLE and at times intensely creepy, as well; that whole party sequence calls back to Polanski in a way which left me jaw dropped for a second or two. The last two shots, switching between an astounded Virginia and a scarily ecstatic, laughing Catherine, they’ve still not washed off me. I watched Queen of Earth, after picking it up through iTunes, twice in the matter of about 12 hours. Each time I was floored beyond belief and those final moments will not find their way out of my head.