IFC Films, 2015
Writers: Alex Ross Perry
Directors: Alex Ross Perry
Out of 5: 5
Queen of Earth opens with a long scene, shot mostly in one take, in which Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) dumps her boyfriend for cheating on her. The shot is the movie in microcosm: long and painful enough to be awkward at first, and then to cause active discomfort. Catherine starts off upset and spirals into agonized self-loathing, all while her boyfriend sits there and watches, ashamed and unsure. As in the movie as a whole, Moss is dynamite in the scene. As in the movie as a whole, it’s some of the best acting you’ll see all year.
Catherine heads to upstate New York, to stay at the summer home of her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston, turning heads with every performance after her revelatory work in Inherent Vice). Perhaps Catherine was clinically depressed, or suffered from an even greater mental illness, before she went upstate. But even if not, it doesn’t take long to figure out that she needs more help than Virginia is equipped to provide.
The closest comparison for Queen of Earth is The Shining; Catherine’s supposed vacation home is turning into an asylum, and as with Jack Torrance, there are plenty of suggestions that she was not all that mentally sound to begin with. However, where The Shining was overt, Queen of Earth is more subtle. Moss’ performance suggests a woman haunted by demons psychological and emotional, where Kubrick’s film was haunted by literal demons.
Similarly, Catherine and Virginia are not blocked into their house by snow or any other form of heavy weather, unable to leave; instead, the bonds of friendship and history make them feel obligated to stay alongside each other even as the horror accelerates. Director Alex Ross Perry shows this through the use of flashbacks that are staged identically to the present-day scenes; one has to be paying close attention to be sure of which timeline the film is in for any one shot. It’s only through Moss’ and Waterston’s performances that the era can be identified, but even then, the roots of Catherine’s illness and Virginia’s inability to deal are clear.
Cynics will be tempted to dismiss this film as an Oscar-baiting attempt by Moss, who is in nearly every shot and is playing the showy mental breakdown throughout. But Perry (who also worked with Moss in his last film, Listen Up Philip) understands that an equally true horror is the one that Virginia is experiencing: her friend seems to be transforming into a different person right before her eyes, a horrible person who might even be dangerous, and Virginia is powerless to stop it.
Moreover, Perry understands that this sort of horror develops from two people being unable to communicate with each other. The most fascinating scene in this picture is one where Catherine and Virginia are both trying to explain their problems to each other via monologue, and Perry holds on the face of the woman who is not speaking. Anyone can have a film where one character says to another, “I don’t understand,” but Perry’s mastery is in having these two characters’ inability to understand each other shown merely by facial expression.
Moss’ secret as an actor is inscrutability. She’s able to nail the moments in which she is hiding herself from everyone – including the other actors in the scene – and then, when the time finally comes for her to reveal her true feelings, that previous mystery makes the reveal all the more powerful. Queen of Earth does not build to a chaotic screaming match; it builds to a scene in which Moss reveals the true depth of her contempt for a certain character via a quiet, almost relaxed monologue. In that moment, Moss doesn’t need to scream. She’s spent an entire film developing the horror, and her brilliant set-up makes the payoff elementary.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.