A sense of comedic dread infuses the opening scene of Riley Stearns’ Faults, as a nervous restaurant patron munches on his five-dollar breakfast. Much to the chagrin of management, the well-dressed fellow offers a free voucher as payment; the same one he produced the night before. As tension builds, the camera remains still and figuratively locks down the scene. It’s a brief example of how a public setting and personal circumstance may fog up the brain over a relatively minor issue.
By casting Leland Orser as Ansel Roth, director Stearns establishes a subliminal mindfuck from the jump. Almost 20 years ago, Orser appeared in the infamous “lust” scene from David Fincher’s Se7en; a shocking moment in cinema that simply can’t be forgotten (or unseen). Overcome with complete terror, the “Crazed Man in Massage Parlour” tries to comprehend what transpired, and it’s that feeling of despair which Orser brings to Roth in the opening minutes of Faults.
As a well-known philosopher of human mind control, Roth offers guidance to desperate souls; however, a former acquaintance drops a nasty beating on him at a hotel convention. Shamed and painfully broke, he accepts a free breakfast from a couple searching for their runaway daughter. Rather than confronting the essence of his personal troubles, Roth moves on to the next job — a cult kidnapping – and it won’t be cheap. Welcome to the world of Faults.
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Despite the opening breakfast rant and public humiliation, the mind doctor stays rather composed when dealing with his latest clients. A more devious man would go straight for the dough, but Roth doesn’t think in such a way. He presents various options to the concerned parents with human kidnapping/deprogramming as the final frontier. Given that most young women associated with cults don’t necessarily change overnight, Roth hopes to implement an extensive healing program to slowly return young Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to reality. Of course, a gang of armed men in black must first snatch her away. Surprisingly, director Stearns spends little time navigating the physical world of Faults (the cult); he takes a minimalist approach and produces a game of psychological chess. There’s no hippies wandering around amongst blue skies and vibrant greens. Faults breaks down its characters within the claustrophobic confines of a dirty hotel room.
Winstead kills it as the kidnapped beauty named Claire. Just as Laurence de Monaghan’s Claire inadvertently teases Jean-Claude Brialy’s Jerôme with physical movements in Éric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), Winstead’s Claire affects the mental framework of Roth in much the same way. She’s calm and directs the action with her eyes; however, she’s undoubtedly more hardened than French New Wave Claire. As a result, th physical movements of Winstead’s character are naturally enhanced through her inherent grace and self-awareness as Roth attempts to deprogram her — in a hotel room! Conflict. And that’s where gender and finance come face-to-face. Someone needs saving, but someone needs money too. While a beachfront pad or five-star hotel might improve Claire’s chances of seeing the light, she’s faced with conjoining rooms.
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With numerous personalities seeking resolution, the camera of Michael Ragen serves as the calming force of Faults. His movements, or lack thereof, match the demeanor of Claire, and he frames her exquisitely. Ragen allows the viewer to process the settings and establishes space between the subjects, while director Stearns maintains an enduring sense of dread. Although Claire’s presence is more poetic than deranged, she also conveys a slight comedic charm that complements Roth’s nervous energy. This mutual chemistry highlights the characters’ ambiguity, as everything may go horribly wrong, but Claire and Ansel won’t flip the chess board until the match is complete.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.