“Queen of Earth” opens with an extended close-up of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) in the midst of a break-up with her none-too-broken-up-about-it boyfriend. Occasionally director Alex Ross Perry cuts to the boyfriend, but primarily he keeps on Catherine, up close, her cheeks stained from mascara where the tears have run. If she’s a queen, she’s just been deposed and she doesn’t like it. We’ve seen a million break-ups at the movies but none laced with such an air of portent. And Perry needs nothing else to signal the forthcoming emotional calamity than Moss’s face; it scorches the earth.
Call it kismet that I saw the documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” merely a day before I saw Alex Ross Perry’s second feature film. There its principal subject, Marlon Brando, who knew a few things about acting, called the actor’s face the stage upon which a movie unfolds, considering its size when projected onto the screen before us and our closeness to that image. I don’t know if Ross Perry saw a rough cut of “Listen to Me Marlon” but he takes the pre-eminent actor’s theory to heart. This is a claustrophobic film, not simply because it’s almost exclusively set in one locale, but because the predominant visual strategy is close-ups; more than anywhere else, “Queen of Earth” plays out on the faces of its principal actresses, Ms. Moss and Katherine Waterston.
Reeling from her break-up and the death of her famous artist father, Catherine is invited to an idyllic cabin in the woods by her best friend Ginny (Waterston), where much to Catherine’s chagrin a next-door neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), with a permanent smug smile, as if the whole world exists for his own amusement, keeps showing up to make time with her BFF. And what’s supposed to be emotionally replenishing instead becomes enervating. Though these two women are shown to be close, their friendship exists almost entirely around picking at one another’s emotional scabs until metaphorical blood is let. The film’s occasional flashbacks, which cut in at random moments, like the film’s synapses are suddenly firing, demonstrate a foundation between the two of jealousy and resentment. And as this lakeside retreat unfolds, it’s as if the senior technicians from The Facility have pumped acrimony-generating gas into the air. Because what ensues is a batshit intense horror movie, as if “Mean Girls” was re-set at the Overlook Hotel.
But then, “Queen of Earth” is never as physically violent as “The Shining.” In fact, it’s never physically violent at all. Ross Perry occasionally hints that he might be moving things in that direction, but that’s a deliberate tease. When Catherine happens upon a passed out stranger and invites him in, she giggles, observing “If I murdered you right now no one would notice.” It’s the funniest thing in the movie, because of the giggly way she says it, because of the amused expression on her face. The idea that this movie could go that way is laughable. In fact, this sequence might not even be real. It’s tough to know. It’s suggested but never investigated. No one really investigates anything. As Catherine crumbles before their very eyes, Ginny is quietly satisfied and then bewildered while Rich is essentially amused. He harbors a grudge, apparently because she’s rich. “You don’t know me,” she says. And he doesn’t. We don’t.
Seeking to be an artist, like her famous father, she has the ability to capture the essence of the other person, though apparently not herself. Self-scrutiny is the enemy here, an inability of introspection. Co-dependency looms large. It is suggested that she has long survived by being daddy’s little princess and by hanging on the arm of her significant other. At one point, Catherine tells Rich off, an obscenely riveting moment that leaves Ginny with the literal shakes. Yet the takeaway is clear; even if Catherine can see through Rich, she can’t see herself. Maybe no one’s there.
The film’s most indelible sequence finds Ginny sitting for a portrait as painted by Catherine. But notice the way Ross Perry frames each woman. The youthfully winsome face of Ginny is bathed in a peaceful sunlight reflecting off the water while Catherine is ghostly white, as if that same sunlight does not even know she’s there. Throughout, moments hint at each woman being a piece of one another, interchangeable, like the shot that finds them merged in the reflection of a window. Yet in this sequence you can tangibly sense their disconnection. In her squinty, confused eyes, Ginny can hardly see Catherine, and Catherine looks like she’s long gone. She complains of not being able to feel the bones in her face. Later this is discounted as a psychosomatic but Moss’s increasingly deranged detachment pointedly refutes that diagnosis.
This emotional horror movie becomes a ghost story and if Catherine got up, floated right through the wall and disappeared, you’d hardly be surprised.