Editor’s Note: Queen of Earth opens in limited release today, August 26, 2015.
Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) spends a week decompressing at the lake house of her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Life is pretty hard for Catherine, who is reeling from being dumped by her boyfriend just weeks after her famous father committed suicide. That Catherine feels alone after all she’s been through is obvious; less obvious is whether she really is all alone in the world or not, especially when Virginia’s repeated insistence that she is Catherine’s good friend seems unlikely given the sharpness of her words. Virginia is all thorns and angles, everything about her so sharp that sometimes even her hair looks like fangs.
With solid dialogue, a fine story and deft performances, Queen of Earth would soar, if it weren’t tethered so tightly to the ground by its own self-satisfaction.
Through flashbacks we learn that each woman has dealt with tragedies and asshole boyfriends at different times throughout the year. Catherine’s boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) has obviously moved on, but Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s neighbor and friend with benefits, is still around. But the awkward relationship between Virginia and Catherine is about more than seeing their best friend hook up with a jerk: there is an unresolved hostility of unclear origin floating heavy in the air. Kindness and empathy are given and withheld between the two friends in ways that suit them alone. Pained looks and nasty barbs are traded; fists are clenched while frustration and unspoken anger informs even their few friendly moments.
It’s no coincidence that the audience is subject to similar frustrations, as information is withheld from the viewer throughout the film. Done right, the result is tense and thrilling, but Queen of Earth is sometimes a little too clumsy to pull it off. This is especially true when it comes to Catherine’s physical health; despite obviously being in pain and rubbing her sinuses like she’s in a cold medicine commercial, Virginia clearly doesn’t believe her. Only later is more about Catherine’s pain is revealed, and by then, audiences are likely to feel manipulated, like when a paperback mystery withholds major plot points in a cheap attempt to fake suspense.
Virginia is all thorns and angles, everything about her so sharp that sometimes even her hair looks like fangs.
But maybe Queen of Earth wants to be that cheap paperback book. This is a film that borrows from every genre that features complicated women: 1950s science fiction films, 1970s low-budget horror, 1930s and 1940s pulp novels, and more. This relentlessly self-conscious cinematic collage feels at times like a checklist of cinematic references, as though director Alex Ross Perry were more concerned about establishing his cred than establishing a mood. You can practically hear the self-satisfied chuckles at the choice of the trite, overused indie film setting of a lake house in fall. Scenes shot near and on the lake look as though they were framed after consulting a couple dozen screen shots of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. An otherwise effective scene where the friends trade stories of failed past loves looks like a film student’s attempt to remake Persona, and the overall aesthetic makes Queen of Earth look like a sequel to Peter Strickland’s Duke of Burgundy.
It’s all visually appealing and as comfortable as an oversized sweater, but there is precious little payoff from this deconstruction and reassembly of easily recognized cinematic themes. It’s grandstanding, basically, and it distracts from the real payoff in Queen of Earth, namely the performances, especially Elisabeth Moss’s brittle, mentally askew Catherine. Moss captures well the ludicrous side of social interaction, and the complicated dance between two good friends who have hurt each other and don’t have the tools to deal with it. With solid dialogue, a fine story and deft performances, Queen of Earth would soar, if it weren’t tethered so tightly to the ground by its own self-satisfaction.
Queen of Earth is visually appealing, but also frustrating, thanks to a self-consciousness that can be off-putting at times. The film makes up for this one misstep with a solid script, fine dialogue and deft performances, especially from Elisabeth Moss.