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In Queen of Earth, Elisabeth Moss is a woman on the edge of madness

The latest drama from indie director Alex Ross Perry explores the terror of being trapped in one's own head.

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Queen of Earth is a psychological horror film about a woman on the edge of madness and the "frenemy" ready to push her over it. Neither character is all that likable, yet each inspires a good deal of fascination. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip) conjures such a strong atmosphere around his characters—and Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston are so powerful in the leads—that one gets sucked into their emotional conflict. Perry has cited Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water as an influence, and like Polanski he excels at creating a sense of claustrophobia; Queen of Earth is about the terror of feeling trapped in one's own head.

Catherine (Moss) is the daughter of a wealthy New York artist. For most of her adult life, her job has been managing her father's business affairs, easy work that has allowed her to stay nestled inside the luxurious world in which she grew up. When the movie begins, though, her life is not going smoothly; her father has committed suicide a few months earlier, and her long-term boyfriend, James (indie filmmaker Kentucker Audley), has grown disgusted with her. He breaks up with Catherine callously, revealing that he's been cheating on her for some time. He also makes an insensitive reference to her father's suicide, an event that she, in her grief, still refers to as an accident.

Looking to get away from her troubles, Catherine accepts an invitation from her old friend Virginia (Waterston) to spend a week at her family's lake house in the Hamptons. Rather than finding solace, though, Catherine finds only more animosity. Virginia behaves abrasively toward her from the moment she arrives, critiquing practically everything she does and sometimes flat-out insulting her. Whenever Catherine tries to confide in Virginia, her friend changes the subject or dismisses her problems out of hand. Virginia also makes a point of bringing around her neighbor and casual lover, the smarmy layabout Rich (Patrick Fugit), whom she knows Catherine can't stand. As a result of all the interpersonal tension, Catherine becomes increasingly unhinged; she starts exhibiting strange behavior, having long conversations with herself and speaking nonsense to others.

Not much happens apart from that; Perry is more interested in capturing a mood than in telling a story. Yet that mood is potent, evoking Catherine's mental torment. Queen of Earth makes use of only a few locations—most of the action takes place in and around the lake house—so the action feels constricted even when little is happening. Perry shoots most of the film in extreme close-up and long takes, thrusting viewers into Catherine's head space. And Keegan DeWitt's frightening chamber score overwhelms practically every scene, emphasizing the emotional violence of the drama. Watching the film is a discomforting experience; one is constantly reminded of Catherine's confinement within her physical location, within her relationship with Virginia, and ultimately within herself.

Perry often flashes back to the previous summer, when Catherine visited the lake house with James, and reveals that her relationship with Virginia was fraught even then. In the first flashback Virginia digs into Catherine and James's interpersonal dynamic, calling it nothing more than codependency. Perry suggests that one reason for her hostility is her resentment of Catherine's happiness with James, and that the relationship Virginia has with Rich the following summer—which she flaunts in Catherine's face—constitutes a form of revenge. Arguments that the women have had in the past seem to continue in the present, and vice versa; it can be difficult to determine when exactly certain conversations take place, this slippery sense of time reflecting the heroine's loosening grip on reality.

Queen of Earth's tricky narrative structure speaks to Perry's ambitions as a writer; so too does the film's literate dialogue. The insults that Virginia and Catherine exchange are carefully formulated and designed to draw blood. Though there's little profanity, the language is frequently shocking. Virginia boasts to Catherine about breaking off friendships with people she no longer likes. "I just want to purge them from my life . . . people who are annoyances or distractions," she says, stressing the words so they really hurt. One gathers that Virginia would have no problem purging Catherine from her life, and the cumulative effect of numerous such lines is lacerating. In a sense the emotional cruelty serves the same function as physical violence in a conventional horror film.

Perry shows that Virginia can hurt Catherine as badly as she does only because the women are so close. Several scenes capture moments of intimacy between them, which suggests they were once on very good terms. In the movie's longest and most impressive shot, Perry pans slowly between the two leads in close-up as they lie together recounting at length their unsatisfying romantic flings in the year after they finished college. One sees how vulnerable each woman allows herself to be in the other's presence, as each story gives way to confessions of loneliness and resentment. Yet one also senses a guardedness in both women. Though Virginia and Catherine listen patiently to one another, they never make eye contact or offer solace or advice. The "conversation" is in fact two monologues, the "friendship" just mutual self-regard. It's no wonder that the relationship turns toxic once the characters' egos get bruised.

This sort of ugly, codependent relationship is hardly limited to the rich; neither is the fear of becoming a stranger to oneself. Catherine and Virginia might be constrained in their perspectives, but ultimately Perry's concerns are universal. His deliberate breaks with naturalism—his expressionistic lighting, his pervasive use of the chilly score—emphasize the characters' emotions over their social background. Even if you find Catherine and Virginia repugnant, you can still relate to them on a gut level.  v

Perry and filmmaker Joe Swanberg take part in Q&As after the 7 and 9:30 PM shows on Saturday at the Music Box.

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