Undulating and bipolar, Queen of Earth eschews linearity in its attempt to create an overwhelmingly disorientating experience for an audience caught in the crossfire of friendship on the brink of terrifying destruction. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s choice to focus on two mentally-unstable women in a remote waterfront escape begs comparison to the inimitable Persona, yet his fusing of genres evinces a new (almost paradoxical) energy, both reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s film yet utterly unlike anything before it. An intimate character study of a shifting, indefinable character, Queen of Earth pushes the already exceptionally talented Elisabeth Moss to new levels of intense frenzy and naked emotion.
Perry revels in the nastiness of his characters (Listen Up Philip was full of them), and his newest effort is no exception. A noir-styled opening serves as a dynamic establishment of motives, personalities and circumstance. Catherine (Moss), eyes puffy and dripping with mascara-blackened tears, is on the losing end of a disintegrating relationship, and as the more dependent half of said relationship, she appears to have much more to lose in the separation. A weekend at her best friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lake house is assumed — by virtue of it simply happening — to be the best thing for her steadily piling woes, yet her mental state becomes progressively worse. The boyfriend of “Ginny” (Patrick Fugit) and Catherine’s ex-beau James (Kentucker Audley) are depicted as mere interlopers in the female bickering, stirring the pot when necessary and becoming background noise when not in use. Scenes from their trip a year prior are inserted — increasingly at random — to provide equal measures of context and mystification. Brimming with building tension, the film itself begins to convulse, edging ever closer to a frenzied climax as the mirrored “vacations” become far more cyclical than they once appeared.
Although Queen of Earth has been billed as a “thriller” (and it can get quite nerve-wracking), it nevertheless achieves much of the sensation through the use of a lively, emotion-filled score from Listen Up Philip collaborator Keegan DeWitt, along with the liberties it takes with respect to time. Without this accompanying music, the film would have inspired far more head-scratching confusion than the pulse-quickening reverence which begins to materialize. Harmless (albeit strange) dialogue is a given depth and a sinister texture it would not have had otherwise. Solely by nodding to the audience that something grave is amiss, we become helplessly trepidatious about the film’s circumstances and drawn closer in order to give it a deeper look. Is Catherine going to murder all of her friends? Is she dreaming all of this? Is Mrs. Bates really just Norman in a wig? Perry drives his audience to use their imaginations (mostly in his favor) by telling us we should be scared, leaving things just ambiguous enough so that each individual can fill in the blanks according to what intrigues them the most.
Above all, Queen of Earth is an opportunity for Elisabeth Moss to shine. Raw and chaotic, Catherine glides between four distinct personas for much of the film’s run time. An already bipolar figure, she interlaces fits of hellish sarcasm and backhanded fury with moments of loving sincerity and relative normalcy. Compounded by Catherine’s equally-bizarre temperament from a year prior, Moss has enough fodder with which to explore the depths of personality and pinpoint exactly what makes her character tick.
An arresting visual style and an ominous tone collide to deliver a memorable yet sporadic film begging to be dissected by audiences, critics and academics alike. A visceral incursion into a psychological nightmare, Queen of Earth pushes its actors far harder than its audience, leaving us in a stunned silence, wondering what minute detail might have been overlooked, and whether the whole thing might have been just a figment of our imagination.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.