A scene from FAULTS.


United States. Directed by Riley Stearns, 2014. Starring Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Ellis. 89 minutes.

We meet Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) as he pretends to pay for breakfast at a motel restaurant. “Pretends” because voucher he uses has already been redeemed. By Roth himself, it turns out–the manager remembers him from the evening before. When the staff attempts to forcibly eject Roth, he hunkers down, refusing on the grounds that he’s still eating, and shoveling ketchup into his mouth to make the point.

That’s Ansel Roth in a nutshell: broke, desperate, and something of a jerk. Once a respected psychologist and expert on cults and brainwashing, he fell on hard times after a cultist he “deprogrammed” committed suicide. But when a middle-aged couple approach him, asking for his help in rescuing their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the American remake of The Returned) from an apparently new cult named “Faults,” Roth sees a possible chance at redemption. Or, at least, a chance to pay the debt he owes his ex-manager.

Writer/director Riley Stearns places Roth’s history, bitterness, and desperation at the emotional center of Faults, a psychological thriller cut with a heavy dose of irony. The film primarily serves as a portrait of Roth’s psyche. Roth is undeniably pathetic and arrogant, but damned if I didn’t find myself sympathizing with him at a few points. Orser has built a career around playing characters existing in a seemingly perpetual state of pained anguish (SevenThe Guest); he’s well-suited to roles like Ansel Roth. Similarly, Winstead’s girl-next-door charm go a long way in counteracting the creepiness in Claire.

While Orser and Winstead dominate the film, each performance is memorable and there isn’t a dud in the cast; Jon Gries (as Roth’s effete manager), Lance Reddick (as a bolo-tie-wearing enforcer), Brian Ellis (as Claire’s father) and AJ Bowen (in a cameo as the brother of one of Roth’s “subjects”) all deserve special mention.

Despite the general darkness of the story, the film borders on comedy at times–particularly when Gries and Riddick are involved. But Stearns perfectly balances the quirky aspects of the story with the darker ones in much the same way a good Coen brothers black comedy does (and in a way that the Coens’ acolytes often miss). I also tip my hat to Stearns for slipping the big plot twist under my radar–by rights, I should have seen it coming ten miles away.

Faults is worth watching for Orser and Winstead’s performances alone, but its intensity and black streak of humor add to the enjoyment. A must-see for fans of Fargo and similar movies.