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Cults have long provided fascinating source material for both narrative and documentary films—from The Master (2012) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)—attempting to provide an insider look at the degrees of mind-control and manipulation that some people can wield so well. Now writer-director Riley Stearns joins the order with his commendable first feature, a 90-minute headtrip, disconcerting to the very end. Faults is at times horrifyingly funny—before it becomes just plain horrifying—carried by stellar performances even when it falters.

Leland Orser (Taken, Se7en), the versatile character actor whom you’ve seen onscreen more times than you know, plays Ansel Roth, an internationally renowned expert on cults. Or at least he used to be. As Faults opens, Ansel sits in a motel diner the night before his book seminar on sects, arguing with a waiter and manager over a free meal voucher that he dug out of the trash. The meal is for $4.75—so Ansel is broke, cheap or just being belligerent. Possibly all three.

Stearns deftly creates an unlikeable character from the outset, and the excellent Orser emanates Ansel’s bitterness with a bearing both smug and self-serving: he’s the type who steals towels, toilet paper and even the TV remote batteries from the motel. When approached during his seminar by the brother of a now-deceased woman he tried to “deprogram,” Ansel tells him, basically, to fuck off: “She had the choice of living with people who ignored her, controlled her, abused her—or dying alone in solidarity with a suicide cult. She made her choice, huh?”

Ansel’s career missteps and bad financial decisions have cost him his marriage. He’s also deeply in debt to his manager/loan shark Terry, a miscreant with a sweet Southern lilt, masterfully played by Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite). Though Ansel initially rebuffs the requests from Evelyn (Beth Grant) and Paul (Chris Ellis) to help them extricate their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a mysterious cult called Faults, he’s desperate for the money, so he relents and forms a plan.

With the assistance of two bungling henchmen, Ansel kidnaps Claire and begins a five-day process—replete with imprisonment, sleep deprivation and therapy sessions—to free her mind. Claire, however, proves to be more of a challenge than he expected. Her faith is immutable, and her counterpoints in their debates seem reasonable and logical. Claire’s relationship with her parents also seems far from perfect, and Ansel gets a sense of déjà vu that harkens back to his last deprogramming case. Winstead, one of the film’s producers (not to mention Stearns’s wife), maintains such an eerie, even calm, resolve that it’s difficult to discern whether she’s mentally ill or the sane one in an insane situation. Possibly both.

Deprogramming sessions encompass much of the film’s action, which take place in a seedy motel room, a set which is fashioned like a theatrical production—with Ansel and Claire taking center stage as they play a game of cat and mouse over ideologies—to lend the scenes a touch of claustrophobia. Stearns and cinematographer Michael Ragen also quickly establish a clear visual language during the power struggle between Claire and Nasel, the latter previously shown through several low-angle shots to be the dominant character. That is, until stress and sleep deprivation take hold, when Stearns seems to purposely lose some control over his composition, his unsteady shots mimicking the onscreen turmoil.

During its last act, Faults goes mind-bendingly twisted, head-first into completely ominous territory; gone is any illusion of humor. All underlying elements of dark comedy at the film’s outset, combined with Stearns’ sharp dialogue, are by the end replaced with an atmosphere that makes Ansel, and the audience, question what’s real. Faults ultimately loses the chance to explore its characters psyches in a truly in-depth manner, instead overly concerned with plot twisting, but Orser and Winstead are committed to the madness—it’s got the mind-control and manipulation parts down pat.

Directors: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Leland Orser, Beth Grant, Chris Ellis, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick
Release Date: March 6, 2015 (theatrical and VOD)

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.