Is Alex Ross Perry America’s best contemporary filmmaker? If your voice is counted among the uproar raised over Perry’s 2014 film, Listen Up Philip, that shouldn’t even be a question, but that film plays only to palates honed to withstand the acrid taste of wanton awfulness. Perry makes lovely, fractured movies about hideous people. Watching his work delights the mind while corroding the soul. Sharp staccato dialogue and humor as black as pitch don’t ameliorate the bothersome notion that we’re enabling his parades of misery. Taken from that angle, Perry’s latest, Queen of Earth, feels like more of the same, except that it overflows with an urgent sense of humanity that his past efforts willfully elide.
The movie is no less disquieting for Perry’s newfound compassion, of course. Why wouldn’t it be? Perry doesn’t go easy on his viewers, which in part is why he’s earned such cachet among cinephiles with such a slim feature filmography. The Perry experience is a sprint. You have to be quick on your feet if you expect to keep up with him. He crams so much writing and tension into each scene that Queen of Earth feels longer than it actually is, which is more of a compliment than it sounds. Faint-hearted types might want to give the film a pass, then, if not for its density then for its disposition. It’s a kinder picture than Listen Up Philip that amazingly manages to be twice as merciless. We have no reason to give a damn about Philip. Here, we can’t help but feel for Catherine (Elisabeth Moss). She’s a woman smack-dab in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
We’re introduced to Catherine in the most unflattering of ways as Queen of Earth opens. Perry’s lens presses relentlessly toward her face while she stares off-frame, wild-eyed and tear-streaked as her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley, the absolute worst movie boyfriend in 2015) breaks up with her. Their disunion isn’t the worst thing to happen to Catherine: Her dad, a preeminent New York artist, is recently deceased, too, and the sudden split with James leaves her in a precarious mental state and with almost no one left to love her. The only caring soul Catherine can reliably call on is her bestie, Virginia (Katherine Waterston), and so Catherine makes for Virginia’s parents’ lake house to patch herself up and move on with her life.
Moving on swiftly becomes a bleak, agonizing farce. If you haven’t seen any of Perry’s movies, you can’t begin to imagine how poorly that goes, and even if you have, Queen of Earth still may knock you off your guard. The film is about women trapped in cycles of dissatisfaction and disappointment, and how their personal cycles merge into a larger, more insidious cycle. Decorum dissolves with breathtaking alacrity once Catherine and Virginia settle in: The seams of their relationship start splitting several stitches at a time. Men—not just James, but Virginia’s neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit)—are only a partial factor in the sundering of this friendship. The rest is all passive-aggression, aggressive-aggression, and resentments both spoken and unspoken.
Perry crystallizes the fault lines in their bond before the first act scarcely begins. He’s making real-life horror: No skeletons, spirits, or haunts, just the mounting dread of Catherine’s slow disintegration. Queen of Earth is chiefly about her, but Virginia remains the audience surrogate. Like us, she can only watch helplessly as Catherine molders right in front of her. Catherine complains of pain in her face, she barely eats, she breaks out in fits of incongruous giggling, and even though she met Rich a year prior, she can’t remember him in the present. She’s bad with faces, she claims, but funny thing: Perry is great with them. He seems to have cast Moss and Waterston explicitly for their faces, in fact, littering the film with reaction shots, monologues, and duologues to get the most mileage out of their expressive and emotive gifts.
All the while Perry’s camera busies itself by invading his leads’ personal space, most notably in a stellar extended take that glides back and forth from one actress to the other as they trade emotional war stories and bitter reflections on human nature. We feel like we’re intruding on, and adding to, their rising friction. The effect is mesmerizingly voyeuristic and intimately cinematic. Perry’s previous films draw inspiration from writers. Queen of Earth, appropriately enough, takes its cues from the movies instead: Ingmar Bergman and Herk Harvey, Adrian Lyne and Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Robert Altman. For that reason alone, Perry’s fourth outing feels like better proof of his claim as the heir apparent to the throne of U.S. independent film than either Listen Up Philip or 2011’s The Color Wheel.
But if Queen of Earth is the most definitive step in the director’s ascendancy, its best merits are its leads. Moss and Waterston deliver. The movie is theirs first and Perry’s second, though when you’re directing women this gifted, you probably don’t mind that they’re overshadowing you.
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley
Release Date: August 26, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.