Queen of Earth is a cryptic, difficult movie. I've seen a lot of movies depicting the mental collapse - because of my own experiences with it, it's comforting to see the people on screen go through similar things. Black Swan and Mulholland Drive occupy the highest places in my all time favorite list. Repulsion follows close. Queen of Earth is not on the level of those movies, the director's vision not as clear, the movie not as mysterious and rewatchable, but it definitely portrays the decay of mind in a very insightful and fascinating way.
The film follows Catherine, who in the very first scene is dumped by her boyfriend. Catherine seeks peace at the remote cottage belonging to her friend Virginia (Ginny). Through a series of flashbacks we see the time when it was Virgina who needed help last summer and Catherine was in that same cottage, visiting. In present time we see Catherine gradually mentally declines and becoming more and more unhinged as Virgina witness her collapse with increasing worry.
The film takes place in a week and the portrayal of Catherine's downward spiral is outstanding, if not for a slightly disjointed script - it's like Perry cannot decide if he wants to make a movie about Catherine's collapse or about the relationship between the two movies, trying to accomplish both he fails to fulfill the potential of either - it's because of Elisabeth Moss's brilliant work.
Moss was already impressive and heartbreaking years ago in Girl, Interrupted - a film that to this day remains one of the most wonderful examples of all female cast working together and delivering so many great performances - and she rose to fame with her work in Mad Men. I've seen enough of the show to know just how good she was and even though her other show - Top of the Lake - the show bored me to tears, I heard her work there is impressive which doesn't surprise me in the slightest.
Moss delivers her best work here - her performance making you ignore all the blemishes of the movie and the script. She is heartbreaking and fragile, but she is capable of turning dangerous and violent in the matter of moments. But the best thing about her performance is that her Catherine is completely unpredictable - she is so unhinged you have absolutely no idea what she might do. I swear about ten times during watching this movie Moss's deranged expression and blank swollen eyes had me convinced Catherine is about to slaughter someone.
That unpredictability is what makes the breakdown so horrific - you known when you are in it that what you are doing makes no sense, but you do it, because you just don't care. Whether is is Nina dancing even though she is bleeding out, Carol writing imaginary words on the glass with her finger or Catherine finding bones and staring at them, smiling. The collapse of the mind is just that - drowning in irrationality.
These are all excellent examples of what human minds does to us during mental collapse that I suspect not many who didn't experience such state understand. The
crippling feeling of having to master all the strength, assemble all the
molecules of your being just to hoist yourself up and do anything. The
feeling that you just can't stop crying and calm down. The feeling that
you may actually be capable of anything. The feeling you understand
those who did the unimaginable.
Waterston is very impressive as well, I've never seen her in anything else, convinced that I won't like Anderson's Inherent Vice, which was her big break. Here Waterston plays Ginny, who you can sense has deep issues on her own and is immature and coasting through life, but comparing to Moss' Catherine, who is simply crumbling before our very eyes, Ginny almost looks strong and in control of her actions and her life.
The film is also a carnival of cruelty and sabotage. If Catherine and Ginny are friends, it's not a warm bond they share. It's a toxic, eerie connection. For some reason these two women are all they have left for each other - Catherine, having lost her father to suicide and depression and being abandoned by yet another boyfriend, and Ginny, who surrounds herself with meaningless relationships with people she doesn't really like. But they are both so self absorbed, the other tragedy here is that they are really not capable of being a friend to one another - there is a terrific scene where they are talking, but it's not even a conversation, it's just them saying their monologues about their lives.
When at one point of the movie, while Catherine, who looks like she has been crying for days, is painting Ginny, Ginny remarks how she is seeing Catherine for the very first time - how it is now clear to her that Catherine surrounds herself with men and without them she doesn't know what to do. Her words are cruel but Ginny smiles, triumphant at the thought of being better than her friend, even if better means she is simply floating through life on the semblance of peace and stability and Catherine is falling apart.
But the bond between the two can never appear as toxic as it truly is when the film has such horrible male figures - Catherine's boyfriend who dumps her, even though he was probably justified giving her obnoxious behaviour, just comes off as heartless. And there is Rich, who is a complete asshole who enjoys torturing Catherine belittling her problems and poking fun at her life and situation. The ugliness of these male figures - weak, selfish and ignorant, even more so than Ginny and Catherine - masks the ugliness of female characters enough, that you almost feel bad for them. Almost.
The whole thing is shot beautifully and the score is particularly impressive and right after Mad Max: Fury Road it's the most distinctive score of the year - it's not as sweeping and nowhere near as memorable as Tom Holdenberg's brilliant work but it is out there with It Follows' music as something that really helps establish the mood of the movie without distracting from the story and performances.
The film isn't really original - the homages here are everywhere, the most glaring one in the salad that Catherine is not eating, an equivalent of rotting rabbit from Repulsion. But it's not a flaw when Perry has such a good understanding of what he is portraying. The film could have been more focused, but even if it's not, it's still one of the year's best so far.
While Queen of Earth may be too much for general audience to handle - it's not an easy movie to watch or understand, it's certainly a gem and thanks to the music and the work by Moss and Waterston it's not easy to forget.
Queen of Earth
(USA, 2015, 90 min)
Plot: Two women who grew up together discover they have drifted apart when they retreat to a lake house together.
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit