United States, 2015. Directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley. 90 minutes.
If Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth has a cornerstone, a centerpiece, a central scene that sums up its entire experience, it’s one that comes about fifteen minutes before the end of the film. Protagonist Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), fresh off her father’s suicide and longtime boyfriend James’s (Kentucker Audley) betrayal, has joined her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) at the latter’s family’s cabin for a week of solitude and relaxation. But the peace and serenity does nothing to slow the gradual disintegration of Catherine’s psyche; neither do the haunting memories of her visit last year with Virginia and James.
Finally, she snaps at Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s smug, self-satisfied jerk of a friend-with-benefits: “You click your tongue and you revel in the affairs of others,” she tells him. “You show up to fuck my best friend, and you pry into the lives of others to conceal how worthless and boring your own life is. I don’t deserve this. I just want to be left alone with the few people who are left in this world who are decent.” Then she twists the knife further: “You are worthless. You are weak and greedy and selfish, and you are the root of every problem; you are why depression exists.”
As powerful as the scene is, positioned toward the end, it’s a bit hard to reach. Watching Queen of Earth sometimes feels like being cut adrift in a vast sea of misanthropy with no sign of land. Earlier in the film, Catherine has a brief conversation with a neighbor in which he describes Virginia’s family as “terrible people,” two words which I could use to describe almost every character in the film. Even the judgmental and over-sensitive Catherine becomes hard to take after a while, and she’s the closest thing Perry offers to a sympathetic character. She and Virginia repeatedly describe each other as “best friends,” but they seem to do so out of habit more than genuine affection. Or maybe they simply don’t know how to be friends.
There’s more going on in Queen of Earth than unpleasant people making each other miserable. Perry tells his story slowly and deliberately, with some clear nods towards ’70s cinema and a tendency towards close-ups. Interpretation of behavior is the key to understanding how the characters see each other; what Catherine sees as Rich’s nosiness I initially saw as genuine curiosity, but Perry and Fugit gradually reveal Rich as exactly as awful as Catherine accuses him of being. Similarly, while James and Virginia both describe Catherine as “co-dependent,” this is not something that seems obvious in the scenes with James, and her unhealthy attitude toward her father can easily be written off as grief…at first.
While Perry’s script may be interesting (if often alienating) and his visuals breathtaking, Queen of Earth requires strong performances to work properly, and those are what he gets. It’s easy–too easy–to see the characters as bundles of self-important, self-righteous millennial stereotypes, but Moss and Waterston turn Catherine and Virginia into real people. Moss, in particular, is a revelation–I can readily believe she was in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Fugit and Audley aren’t quite as strong–but then again, neither are Rich and James. They’re present to define their partners, not exist as characters in their own right.
Still, I won’t deny I felt relieved at the end of Queen of Earth. The camera work may be lovely, the performances brave, but these are not characters I wanted to spend any more time with and I was glad to be rid of them.