One of the quotes from the trailer for Faults, the new film from writer/director Riley Stearns that sees a theatrical run following its debut at SXSW last year, proclaims it the intersection of Martha Marcy May Marlene and a Coen Brothers film. It is an alluring prospect; Martha Marcy May Marlene was a fantastic piece of paranoid tension that established Elizabeth Olsen as a young actress to watch, and the addition of that trademark Coen sensibility, that twisted, depraved chaotic humor, could only entice further.
The cult in question is the eponymous Faults, and it appears to have the daughter of a middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) at the end of their ropes. They see the potential for salvation in Ansel (Leland Orser), a self-proclaimed expert on cults and deprogramming who has fallen on hard times due to a failed book deal. He owes a lot of money to his former manager Terry (Jon Gries) and Terry’s intimidating second Mick (Lance Reddick) is keen to collect. Despite some implied calamity from a previous deprogramming, Ansel ees the desperate couple as an opportunity to clear his debts, and decides to help them out with their wayward daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After a daringly clumsy midday kidnapping, Ansel brings his charge to a seedy motel room and sets about his work.
In addition to its pronounced overlaps of subject matter, Faults is akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene in the way it relies on action far more than words to convey its characters and themes. Its opening scene is fiendishly clever, a distillation of all that Ansel is as he tries to skive an illicit second comped meal at a restaurant by a hotel at which he is giving a seminar about cults, mind control and deprogramming. Orser is the sort of actor who has operated on the fringes of pop culture for twenty years, with notable bit roles in films like Seven and Saving Private Ryan and the Taken films, as well as quite a bit of television work, but Faults is a rare case of a director putting him in the driver’s seat, and he proves himself equal to the task. The way he soldiers on, shoving fries into his mouth with the ruthless zeal of a man who hasn’t had a meal like this in a while, without a care for the harried insistence of both waitress and manager asking him for payment, the way he forks straight ketchup in response to the insistence that his meal is finished, all of it effortlessly establishes who and what this man is.
Once he is locked in a run-down motel room with his charge, it becomes clear that he might not have as much control over the situation as he may think. Winstead’s Claire may be a shrinking violet in the outside world, but confined to her wood-paneled prison her demeanor changes instantly. She shifts the power dynamic immediately establishing dominance by remarking that the only thing holding her back from ripping his tongue from his throat is that God had given her a sign. The threat of violence comes from a place of unnatural calm considering its content, and Ansel is taken aback, upsetting the power dynamic. The most engaging moments of Faults lie in these scenes, a pitched battle between Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead that is just as mental as it is physical. Winstead lets her eyes do much of the talking, taking full advantage of her natural expressiveness with a buffet of icy stares, furtive glances and faux vulnerability.
The film does not have to spend much time in the hotel room until things evolve into something altogether different. The name of the game is control, and Stearns’ direction and screenplay create a fluid dynamic that consistently undercuts both the expectations of its conceit and its characters. This is certainly not the first time a film has played fast and loose with both anticipated genre and gender conventions, but Faults approaches the material with a zeal and conviction that energizes its audience and ratchets the tension of the encounter admirably. The more power Ansel loses and the more Claire gets the upper hand, the more intriguing this intersection of The Exorcist and a chamber play becomes, which is a testament to both the quality of Stearns’ leads and the sophistication of his script.
Weaknesses are hard to come by, but Faults is not entirely cohesive. The extortion subplot involving Ansel’s manager and Lance Reddick’s shadowy menace (playing a mysterious figure in the way only he can) may be a necessary evil to motivate Ansel toward taking on the family as clients, but in practice it is such a half-baked flimsy concept that it never evolves beyond plot device status, feeling more like manipulation than motivation. Whereas there is a wholly organic feel to the deprogramming, every time Ansel is pulled away from it to answer a phone call or leave the motel saps some of its drama. For a film that is otherwise so unified in its quality, it is a shame this secondary story does not feel of a piece with the rest of the proceedings.
By its third act, Faults shifts again into an entirely new direction, one that calls into question much of what came before it. Stearns could easily have turned this into a gotcha moment, the sort of paradigm shifting dramatic reveal that defined and eventually derailed the career of M. Night Shyamalan, but he is not so enamored with those aspects of the story to blow them up above the tone and the character of what came before it. Faults is not beholden to or defined by its twist, and is content to present it as just another wrinkle of its central power dynamic, an enticing little nugget to spur on additional conversation and repeat viewings. Faults is a film that is worthy of both of those outcomes, a thoroughly satisfying and devilishly entertaining exercise.