Queen of Earth, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, reveals a filmmaker devoted to experimentation and reinvention. Perry’s work in previous films, including The Color Wheel (2011) and Listen Up Philip (2014) explored the relationships of people drawn together through circumstance but unable to subvert their own desires for the benefit of others. Each subsequent film has been a refinement of Perry’s themes, but Queen of Earth takes them to their extremes.
The film takes place over a week at an isolated cabin by a lake, where Catherine (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston) have come to decompress. Virginia’s parents own the cabin, and she invites Catherine to stay there and recuperate in the wake of her father’s suicide and a recent breakup. At first, their interactions are merely testy; they each take shots at the other in hopes of getting the last word and asserting their moral superiority.
In flashbacks to the previous year’s trip, Virginia is clearly annoyed by Catherine and her now-absent boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley, a director and actor best known for starring in Amy Seimetz’s masterful neo-noir, Sun Don’t Shine). When Virginia tells Catherine that she seems “cripplingly codependent,” Catherine unthinkingly replies “No we don’t.” When Virginia’s neighbor Rich drops by (Patrick Fugit), the two of them team up to delve into Catherine’s work managing the affairs of her father, a well-known “artiste” (Virginia’s term). Their arguments expose the two women’s conflicting views of each other: Virginia sees Catherine as the spoiled beneficiary of nepotism, whereas Catherine sees Virginia as an aimless soul with no goals beyond relaxing and having a good time.
The following year, Rich has returned to visit, and his verbal combat with Catherine ramps up. Catherine, who has not been sleeping and barely eats anything other than a stash of potato chips, falls victim to psychosis. When Virginia and Rich throw a party, she hallucinates that the guests are attacking her, both verbally and physically. Even her more reserved conversations with Rich are suspect; although most of his criticisms are spot on, he still comes off as a dick more often than not, and with little provocation needed. Catherine’s relationship with Virginia also seems to be completely different from how she imagines it to be: she uses the term “best friend” multiple times, but their relationship seems to have soured in recent years, something Catherine tries to ignore, or is completely ignorant of. Only the memory of friendship holds them together. As Catherine begins to unravel, Virginia simply watches, first with pleasure at her distress, then with mounting horror as Catherine descends into madness.
Perry’s film is filled with connections to past films, films where women descend into madness in cramped quarters (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), and films where women begin to switch psychic roles (Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s 3 Women). It’s not clear until late in the film whether or not Queen of Earth will follow Repulsion’s descent in violence. The audience already knows that violence is a possibility, but Virginia’s unwillingness to voice that fear is far more chilling.
Like Persona and 3 Women, Virginia and Catherine appear to have switched roles. Now it’s Virginia’s turn to bring her annoying boyfriend to a getaway that’s intended only for the two women. Now it’s Catherine’s turn to be annoyed by everything that they do, no matter how mild or innocent it actually may be. But Catherine, already dealing with mental health issues, can’t take the stress, or even understand how fitting the turnaround is. She’s been pushed with one foot already off the ground, and it knocks her clean off her feet. Virginia’s decision to stand by and watch Catherine fall is a form of retribution, and by the time she’s finally moved to act, it’s too late.
Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams have crafted a film that is equally beautiful and claustrophobic. The woods are suffused with daylight, but the cabin blocks most of it out despite the abundance of windows, bathing the actors in shadows. De Palma-like split diopter lenses are employed throughout, creating two separate focuses with a line separating them down the middle to emphasize the break between Catherine and Virginia. Keegan DeWitt, who composed the excellent jazz score for Listen Up Philip, switches palettes this time, using atonal clusters reminiscent of Ligeti and Penderecki, mixed with somber minimalist music and mysterious clarinets.
The film’s sounds are as important as its visuals, and they often mirror Catherine’s psychosis. The sounds of eating and drinking are nearly deafening, threatening to drown out everything else. In the woods, bug and animal noises create a cacophonous din. Even the gorgeous calligraphic titles, designed by Teddy Blanks, are eerily effective, the font equivalent of a creepy children’s nursery rhyme in a horror film. The combination of the atonal music and the titles announcing the day of the week make comparisons to The Shining inevitable.
Of the two central performances, Waterston’s is impressive for how she manages to avoid simply reacting to everything her counterpart does. It’s clear that Virginia has her own sadness, much of which are only expressed through her piercing eyes. Still, Moss’s performance dominates the film. She is able to make her escalating madness seems both gradual and inevitable. At her most unhinged, it’s almost painful to watch her, in part thanks to the masterful use of close-ups. Moss is able to reveal her true inner turmoil with a mere glance long before the actual hysterics begin.
Queen of Earth departs considerably from Perry’s earlier films, although common threads still run through each work. There are many funny lines, like in his previous work, but the mood never veers toward outright comedy. The final moments of the film are ambiguous, leaving the viewer with a host of questions. The most important one might be what this chameleonic director will do next.