Not too long ago, a handful of films about cults were released within the span of about a year. Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice, The East, and The Master were four of the biggest, and though these films all dealt with portraying cults in slightly different ways, it felt as if there was something in the air; it seemed as if suddenly all of these filmmakers were making small, independent films about cults. If you pay attention to this kind of stuff, it might strike you that Riley Stearns' freshman feature, Faults, is a couple of years late to the party - after all, the plot revolves around a man hired to pull a girl out of a cult lifestyle and "deprogram" her. But this movie is an assured directorial debut that clearly stands on its own. A taut, hypnotizing thriller with dynamic performances all around, Faults is a terrific example of the power of low budget filmmaking.
Writer/Director: Riley Stearns
Starring: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Lance Reddick
Leland Orser plays Ansel Roth, a depressing, schlubbly author peddling his latest book about how to escape the clutches of cult life in tiny hotel conference rooms. He's out of money - the film opens with a comedic bit involving him childishly stealing a meal from the restaurant attached to his hotel - and out of self-respect, drained by a recent divorce and an incident with a former subject that still haunts him. Orser is great in the role; he's a Tim Blake Nelson-looking dude who puts on a calm and detached persona throughout much of the movie that's betrayed by a palpable sense of coiled desperation that courses just beneath the surface. Roth is tired, and like so many noir characters in fiction, he owes a lot of money to someone.
In order to pay off his debt, he takes on a case from two parents (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) who hire him to save their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who has joined a mysterious cult called "Faults." Roth kidnaps Claire and brings her to a hotel room in an effort to deprogram her, and...well, things don't exactly go according to plan. Stearns has created a film that feels completely and totally unpredictable, and because the characters are so isolated for much of the movie, I spent a majority of the runtime feeling as if anyone could snap and kill anyone else at any moment. Sporadic acts of violence, mysterious nosebleeds, and bizarre flashes of just what's really going on enhance the unnerving tone, but there are plenty of comedic moments to balance things out. It's a very tough line to walk, but Stearns toes it with the best of them.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead - who happens to be Stearns' wife - does some of her best work here as the unwitting captive, slowly doling out information to Roth as he tries to figure out the truth behind the cult. Winstead alternates between moments of looking like a frightened animal and a sly, confident predator, keeping Roth and the audience guessing as to what she's thinking until the film's climactic moments. Supporting actors like Ellis and Grant deliver purposefully odd performances as Claire's parents that contribute to the film's overall weirdness, and "The Wire" star Lance Reddick is enjoyable in a small role (as he was in this year's John Wick).
With a script full of twisty, surprising moments and even some hints at the supernatural, Faults is a showcase of excellent performances and a nice calling card for writer/director Stearns. I'm very much looking forward to what he does next. Until next time...