Evidently, Elisabeth Moss and holiday homes do not mix. When she wandered off to one with Mark Duplass to save their marriage in The One I Love, some pretty weird stuff went down. Now in Alex Ross Perry’s tightly wound psychological horror she disintegrates steeply in front of us.
Resembling a throwback to 1970/80s VHS horror, Queen of Earth is all smudged images, faded colours and scrawling font. No image is quite as smudged as the one that first appears. Close-up on the worn and puffy face of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), she chokes back tears as her boyfriend breaks up with her straight after her beloved artist father has died. Abandoned by the two that meant the most to her, she heads out to stay at the lakeside holiday home of her friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) family.
This dysfunctional duo profess their affection for each other regularly while their behaviour screams the opposite. Every little thing they do seems to rile the other. Dipping into flashbacks of times gone by at the lake, we see a precious and entitled Catherine lecturing Virginia on her lack of career prospects and whiny approach to problems. For her part, Virginia prods away at the co-dependent nature of Catherine’s relationship with boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley).
The scolding parent/recalcitrant child dichotomy has partly reversed following Catherine’s double loss. In a series of uncomfortably direct confrontations, Virginia takes charge while her guest sulks and pouts her way into madness. She lets her living space descend into a tip, starts to feel that the bones in her face are grinding together, and jokes about the ease with which she could murder a zonked out reveller. With this on their minds, it’s no wonder when Virginia and her patronising lover Rich (Patrick Fugit) take her out in a canoe, she resembles a small straight jacketed child tied up between them.
Moss is superb throughout, leading her character through a terrifyingly convincing breakdown. Aided by Keegan DeWitt’s atmospheric score and a camera that just can’t stay away from her face, there’s an air of impending horror hanging over every action. During one meltdown, Virginia instinctively covers a knife lying on the table. The sight of Catherine sharpening a pencil or simply standing watching her friend is deeply unsettling. The oppressive atmosphere is made all the more effective by Perry’s refusal to burst it with anything as commonplace as a bout of schlocky action.
Perry’s previous work focussed on dialogue heavy comedy, and different as this film is, he can’t help but allow a little of his old style to creep in. Several conversations between the two friends are artfully crafted and overly verbose. Speaking smoothly without hesitation, lengthy monologues of despair and self-hatred are trotted out. There are also problems with Waterston’s character as she’s left in the shadows of Catherine’s destructive collapse. After a strong showing in initial skirmishes, she drifts out of sight for large periods.
The taut plot doesn’t suffer too much overall. Queen of Earth continues to crank up the pressure as Virginia’s earlier observation on her friend’s co-dependent nature is proven completely accurate. Unable to function without others, the world has suddenly become a very scary place. And when you’ve put yourself on a towering pedestal, the fall to earth is going to be a hard one.
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writers: Alex Ross Perry, Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Katherine Waterston, Elisabeth Moss, Patrick Fugit
Runtime: 90 mins