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Categories: Movie Reviews

Elisabeth Moss stuns in Alex Ross Perry’s mystifying drama of friendship and isolation.

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Aesthetically gentle yet narratively ferocious, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of the Earth is a simmering dramatization of a trouble in paradise: the rapid erosion of a woman’s sanity as she spends a week with an old friend in a luxury cabin-in-the-woods. These women, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), respectively, are intensely studied in extreme close-up as their relationship sinks into one of the most thrilling melodramas of recent memory. 

Catherine, as her unkempt appearance on the film’s posters would imply, is a mess – and reasonably so. At the onset of the film, she breaks out of a long-term relationship with a man who’s continued to cheat on her, with no remorse. What’s worse, he’s done it even after the recent death of her father, a wealthy artist who committed suicide after suffering from severe depression. Distraught, Catherine rings up her old friend Virginia, who invites her to stay with her at her idyllic mountain retreat. I’m immediately reminded of Oscar Isaac’s hideout in Ex Machina; this one is of course much less high-tech, but no less perfect an isolated setting for the drama.

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Immediately it becomes clear that there’s a clash of personalities, with Christine’s expressive, giddy (though no less pained) and dependent demeanour clashing with Virginia’s blunt, no-nonsense self-determination, though for at least a little while they’re able to connect as friends and open up about their relationships and problems – Virginia, too, has been through her share of bad breakups in her time. That, of course, doesn’t last long, as Christine begins acting oddly – talking to herself, hiding in her room, hallucinating – and Virginia’s attempts at interference – which turn into avoidance – only escalate the tension. And then when neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit) gets involved, sleeping with Virginia and butting into the two friends’ one-on-one time, things only get worse for Christine, until even we’re not sure what her reality is.

This all becomes an intense, intimate character study through Sean Price Williams’s expressive handheld cinematography, which frames most conversations in extreme close-up so we can observe every detail in the characters’ faces as they progress through their emotional arcs. With the lush mountains as backdrop and a stirring orchestral score, we feel as isolated as Christine and Virginia as they deal with the reality of their faltering friendship and the pain they’ve both gone through.

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Almost entirely dialogue-driven, Queen of Earth is a slight film in terms of action and fanfare, but a gargantuan one in terms of emotional impact. If a little too “this-is-the-most-important-thing-on-Earth” at times, it certainly lives up to its title, connecting us as much to Christine as to feel the same amount of punch from her increasing loss of reality as she does. Perry’s film never moves the focus away from the characters, ensuring we understand as much about them as possible so even when one’s sense of reality is challenged we continue to feel the connection. Moss and Waterston certainly add a lot to that, bringing their A-game with absolutely stunning performances and often performing long conversations and monologues in single takes.

This is a tense and always gripping film, and one that comes at highest recommendation, though others may not enjoy the loose – sometimes admittedly shaky – handheld camerawork and dialogue-driven plot (where in popcorn terms “nothing happens”) as much as I did. Nonetheless, it’s hard to go wrong with performers this good given space to let loose in an idyllic, isolated mountain retreat. Alex Ross Perry has made a very memorable deconstruction of a friendship here.

Queen of Earth is out now in select UK cinemas.

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Posted on Jul 4, 2016

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