On a technical, detached and mildly unfun standpoint, I got why people liked Listen up Philip. The writing and delivery of the dialogue was acidic and the performers were strong but I just couldn’t bring myself to care. I watched it, liked it for what it was and then almost forgot about it. I hadn’t been familiar with director Alex Ross Perry’s earlier work and wasn’t left all that impressed after Listen Up Philip so I can say that I am genuinely surprised by how well executed Queen of Earth is. Unforgiving and shot in a soft focus style, Queen of Earth is one of the best films of the year so far.
After the death of her father and after she learns her boyfriend has been taking part in an affair, Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) decides to take a mini vacation to her longtime friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lake house. Meant to be a retreat it soon becomes merely a reminder of happier times, as the two friends become increasingly distant and disenchanted with one another.
Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston are remarkable in what is undeniably a two hander of a film, both generous screen presence, knowing when to ease up and let the other take center stage. Moss is the dominant performer as we tumble with her through her psychological break as Waterston is the quieter, reactionary character as she watches on with horror as her best friend slowly slips away from sanity. Their relationship is one that’s lived past it’s healthy shelf life, Virginia often finding herself unable to listen to Catherine’s complaints, and Catherine more likely to throw out a judgemental barb than list to her friends problems with any ounce of sincerity. Their friendship is one based on time and familiarly opposed to a mutual affection. Rather than bring out the best in one another they revel in celebrating the worst. From the outset, Catherine and Virginia have all the privilege in the world. Catherine the daughter of a prestigious artist, Virginia living year long at her family’s lake house with little care in the world, and yet via proxy of the cabin set stage we get a peek into a crumbling psyche.
Despite two leading ladies delivering strong turns (and a delightfully off putting performance from Patrick Fugit) the film is undeniably Perry’s success. While Listen Up Philip succeeded in large part due to Jason Schwartzman playing the title character so well, the characters and performances of Queen of Earth almost come second to just how confident and fully realized the film’s direction is. From the opening scene, a tightly shot scene where Catherine deals with an unflattering and shocking breakup, to moments of almost hallucinogenic moments in the second act where moments are replayed, or seen through a different point of view, to some ominous closing sequences, Parry’s intentionals and the nature of the film are clear. This is a psychological horror, one that has a biting sense of humor but is largely about how humans are conditioned, how they’re left to fail.
Shot on 16mm and aided by his longtime cinematographer Sean Price Williams, Queen of Earth adopts a retro and hazy atmospheric lens. We’re seeing the world through the same filters as Catherine. He and Perry utilize the lake house set to great effect, shooting both Catherine and Virginia in the same frame, with one on the upper level, stilling getting out of bed as the other makes coffee and get’s about their day. It’s calling forth the disconnect, and showing all of the possessions and nature that surrounds them and yet Catherine is still unable to feel at peace. The setting is deceptively picturesque, lulling Catherine as well as the viewer into a false sense of safety just before things become to look more and more bleak for our main character as the house she sought comfort in does little more than offer memories of her time spent with her ex the year before. This is simply the catalyst to what jumpstarts her nervous breakdown, but having it set in such a tranquil setting is an appropriate juxtaposition for the emotional turmoil she’s enduring. William’s work is beautiful and immersive, with the aesthetic of the film adding enormously to the level of stress in induced. The MVP of the film is Keegan DeWitt however, whose score turns a relatively meandering film about a frayed friendship into a internal horror story. There were moments in the film where nothing frightening was taking place, and yet a note from the score would have be jumping in my seat. It put me on edge and into a constant state of concern for the characters.
Tautly written, and performed with intensity, Queen of Earth isn’t afraid of portraying unlikeable characters, exposing their flaws and insecurities to the viewing audience. Perry has a film that is so clearly his own, modeled in his own style, with a duo of powerful female performances. Queen of Earth plays with classic horror psychosis tropes, trapping us as fully into Catherine’s deteriorating state of mind as she is and it’s an enveloping and thrilling ride, even if we’re worried the entire time about where we’ll end up.
Queen of Earth is out in limited theaters now and VOD.