Once again grabbing us by the throat and dragging us into a world of vindictiveness, jealousy, and crumbling relationships, Alex Ross Perry continues to find new ways to make bitter break-ups strangely enjoyable. Unlike last year’s acid-tongue “Listen Up Phillip”, Perry’s latest film “Queen of Earth” is an unnerving psychological drama about friendship, or the perceived friendship between two women. Like “Single White Female” seen through the lens of Ingmar Bergman and Roman Polanski, it’s another uncomfortable, paranoia-fueled psychodrama told in Perry’s unique voice and featuring a pair of remarkable lead performances.
Elisabeth Moss earned so much notice for her riveting turn in Perry’s “Listen Up Phillip” that it’s no surprise he gave her the lead here, and she’s even better. On the surface the film seems incredibly simple, but deeper layers of complexity continue to reveal themselves. The story centers on the fraying friendship between longtime friends, Catherine (Moss), and Ginny (Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston), while vacationing at an idyllic lake house retreat. But this is no pleasure trip a Catherine is in the midst of a depressing downward spiral, spurred on by the recent death of her father and sudden break-up with her boyfriend. But riding horses, relaxing by the water, and painting prove an insufficient escape, and soon tensions begin to rise between the women, tensions that only get worse with the arrival of Rich (Patrick Fugit), Ginny’s abrasive neighbor/love interest who takes glee in stirring things up.
It’s too simple to say this is just another movie where the lead character becomes unhinged because there’s much more going on than that. In fact, it could say this isn’t really about a decaying mental state at all, but the inevitable result of a symbiotic relationship gone sour. What happens when friends who have come to rely on one another realize their bond isn’t as strong as it once was? Or perhaps it was never strong to begin with, just a convenient crutch to be leaned on? Perry, who has always been good at blending different visual styles and emotional tones, has come up with a formula that is both melodramatic and B-movie pulp. “Queen of Earth” wouldn’t be out of place playing as part of a Midnight genre festival or at the local art house. For every strange, offbeat turn, usually expressed by one of Catherine’s breaks from reality, there are subtle explorations into the dynamics of female friendships. Petty jealousies, mistrust, compassion, and even love fight for emotional dominance, making for a consistently enthralling experience. The unease is only heightened by Keegan DeWitt’s moody score, which again taps into the psychological dramas of the past for inspiration.
While Fugit’s role is certainly prominent, and helps give the film an added sense of trepidation, ultimately this is a two-hander led by Moss and Waterston. Both women are tremendous, no shocker there, in performances that play like polar opposites. Waterston plays the cool, aloof, and more stable of the two, but in her eyes one can see the quiet gaze of judgment on her best friend. Meanwhile, Moss is the volatile one, but underneath is a naiveté and innocence that makes us sympathize with her ordeal. That feeling is heightened by scenes taking us a bit further back before Catherine’s breakdown, and we see the seeds being planted for what’s to come.
So much works that it makes the one artificial note stand out more, and it’s when more characters enter the picture for a party that’s destined to be a disaster. It’s the one time when Perry overtly aims for more of a horror feel, perhaps riffing on “Rosemary’s Baby” a little bit, and it doesn’t quite work with the rest of the film. “Queen of Earth” builds steadily to a dispiriting conclusion that will have us questioning everyone’s sanity, but it’s the perfect finale for a film that constantly keeps us on unsure footing.