Illumining the screen with the crackly grain you’d find on a decades-old film reel, Queen of Earth slingshots us into the centre of a relationship bluntly hitting its endpoint. We’re swiftly introduced into the mind of Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine, a darkened playground where the roundabouts are endlessly turning by themselves. Her own fragility is the movie’s bedrock, which will begin to crack underneath the enormous pressures of modern life – but if she locks herself away with a close friend, perhaps she can escape the maelstrom and perhaps even escape back to a happier time. This Persona-style chamber piece is an extraordinary feat of acting and moviemaking, a psychological game of Connect Four that at once holds its secrets close to its chest, and exposes its emotion like a live wire.
Catherine and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) are best friends who get together for a solitary retreat at a lake house, expecting their break to remove them from all the heartache and judgement of their everyday lives. Except their own egos and prejudices toward one another slowly turn their retreat into an abstract version of a very personal hell. Possibly no one has portrayed this descent into delusion in recent memory with more nuance and verve than Moss, who would be a revelation if we didn’t already know of her onscreen powers. More beguiling is Waterston as the incessantly touched-button Virginia (‘Jenny’ to her close friends), who was the unreachable femme ideal in Inherent Vice and, sadly nothing more – but here, she inherits all the ooze and sex of great psychodramas past, and turns them into fleeting glances that can kill at 100 yards. It’d be difficult to describe their relationship as a friendship, other than a mutually-assured destruction. Interestingly, for most of the duration of its run time, the movie fails the Bechdel Test – not that any movies should be judged whatsoever by a ‘test’ of any kind, but one that is necessarily eye-opening when applied to them – and it’s clear that Catherine and Jenny (sorry, Virginia) are almost bound by the men in their lives. But that is entirely the point: the ones who have broken them down, or led them toward unrealistic ideals. Essentially, Queen of Earth is something of an inverse 3 Women, a film wherein the three female leads allow themselves to be defined by men, until they choose to break away for good; the pair in Queen of Earth never decide that it’s actually the morons they’ve been hanging around with that are the problems, not them. Here, men such as Rich, the smarmiest-looking douche perfectly played by Patrick Fugit, or Catherine’s ex-boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), are presented as weaknesses – ones which both ladies continue to ignore, and allow their hearts, and in Catherine’s case, her mind – to slowly unravel over the few ‘tranquil’ days at the lake house.
But in fact, there’s a third character at work too: the astonishing score by Keegan DeWitt ranges from chillingly enigmatic to overtly oppressive. Remove it from a confrontation in the film, or simply from a shot of the glittering lake beside the would-be retreat, and it becomes clear just how tonally insulated Perry has designed his movie. Any shadow of plot is wiped clean by Moss and Waterston’s sturdy grip on their characters, and Perry’s wisdom in allowing them to carry the piece. It screams out as a bravado work from the ‘70s, 16mm film grain included or not, but in the context of 2016, it’s a reminder that all you need for intense, essential drama – and the dangerous combination of lingering dread and nostalgia beneath it – are a handful of characters firing dirty looks across a room. Given time, and a few rewatches, it may reveal itself as one of the year’s best films.
Queen of Earth is in UK cinemas from today, and available on We Are Colony with behind-the-scenes extras.