Alex Ross Perry has no tolerance for feel-good movies. Like his fellow New York-based, independent filmmaker Noah Baumbach, Perry is known for creating acerbic and distinctly unlikable characters and putting them at the center of what turn out to be critically acclaimed films.
Baumbach and Perry also share an affinity for well-drawn female characters and an acknowledged debt to Woody Allen. But as Baumbach (Mistress America) increasingly finds inspiration in Allen's early comedies, Perry has moved closer to dour but insightful Allen dramas like Interiors. Throw in some Roman Polanski — The Tenant or Rosemary's Baby — and a bit of Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and you've got Perry's altogether original Queen of Earth. A character study about a clinically depressed woman and a deteriorating friendship, Queen of Earth provides what may be the most challenging cinematic experience since Perry's previous film, last year's Listen Up Philip.
Elisabeth Moss (Peggy on TV's Mad Men) stars as Catherine, a high-strung woman who has just lost her father, a famous artist to whom she had devoted her life while neglecting her own artistic career. To make matters worse, her longtime boyfriend dumps her (in an opening scene shot in excruciating close-up on Catherine's face) for another woman. Catherine finds "exile" with her best friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) at the secluded lake house owned by Ginny's family. But Ginny's focus drifts away from Catherine toward a casual relationship with boorish, vaguely threatening neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit, Gone Girl), feeding Catherine's alienation and despair as she veers toward mental illness.
Shot in two weeks on a miniscule budget and executed in a style that points to the psychological thrillers of the 1960s and '70s — even the opening titles and end credits refer specifically to that genre and time period — Queen of Earth makes no apologies for a story that's deeply troubling and often hard to watch. It paints an unflinching portrait of the love-hate dynamic at the center of many close friendships and wears its joylessness like a badge of honor. As tensions build and the psych-horror tropes multiply, Queen of Earth telegraphs a big payoff that never quite comes through. Catharsis is not something Perry seems predisposed to offering his characters — or his audience.
Both Catherine's and Ginny's emotional trajectories are communicated through scenes that flash back to the previous summer at the same lake house, with the best friend roles' largely reversed. (Catherine has the insufferable boyfriend and Ginny is going through an unspecified difficult time.) The artful juxtaposition of scenes from two very different summers — sometimes intercut with brief snippets of dialogue — gives Queen of Earth its distinctive character.
Perry has style to burn but Moss delivers the substance with a searing portrayal of one woman's descent into madness. In recent interviews, Perry has hinted that his work with Moss over two films (she also played a key role in Listen Up Philip) may be just the beginning of a long creative partnership. Given the range Moss shows in Queen of Earth, that seems like a very good plan.