There are few opening scenes more arresting than that of Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry’s tale of psychological horror. A nearly unbroken close-up on the distraught face of Elizabeth Moss, with her stringy hair and her smeared eyeshadow, as she excoriates a man off screen for how he has treated her. It is disorienting and out of context, the definition of in media res, and it sets the table for what the director is planning to unleash on his audience. We learn that Moss is Catherine, who has traveled to the vacation home of her long time friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). It becomes clear quickly that their relationship has soured, as Catherine is dealing with a breakup and the seemingly random antagonism of Virginia’s neighbor/lover Rich (Patrick Fugit).
Perry plays fast and loose with the narrative structure of Queen of Earth, not just in its abrupt opening scene but throughout its 90 minutes. The script fluidly shifts between past and present, mirroring the disorientation of Catherine’s psyche as she struggles to keep herself together amidst mounting pressure from all sides. The structure and tone of the film is certainly a departure from last year’s caustic Perry-directed comedy Listen Up Philip, but he continues his fascination with deconstructing and dressing down overconfident intellectuals. Moss is another link to Listen Up Philip, and she continues to impress in her post-Mad Men film career. This is an intensely unglamorous performance (even the poster joins in on the fun), but an incredibly accomplished and confident one. Portraying mental illness on screen is a tricky tightrope to walk, one that can easily tip over into the garish or fail to register the needed pathos. Moss gives Catherine just the right mix of darting-eyed paranoia and supreme empathy. Fugit, looking less and less like William Miller by the day, is wonderfully smarmy as a sort of agent provocateur designed to push Catherine off the deep end. Waterston, only just breaking into the film world’s consciousness thanks to excellent work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, does not have nearly as much to work with (this is very much Moss’ film), but she continues to show a knack for the art, and should have a long, satisfying career ahead of her.
At its best, Queen of Earth feels like it exists at the nexus of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Melancholia (and, presumably, other films that start with M). However, it does not quite have the momentum to keep it up for the full ninety minutes. The film often sags in the middle in comparison to its scintillating opening salvo and its powerful climax, but even at its weakest, Alex Ross Perry’s newest always retains a baseline of interest. Much of that can be laid at the feet of Elizabeth Moss, who is a fair sight better than her material.