by Philip Price
“Queen of Earth” is writer/director Alex Ross Perry's follow-up to last year’s “Listen Up Philip” which also served as my introduction to Perry. With that frame of reference I thought I would somewhat know what to expect from his next feature, but “Queen of Earth” is decidedly different in tone while still focusing in on the same tortured themes that always stand to be enticing when conveyed in as artistic and finely articulated a manner as Perry tends to deliver them. That said, his film that more or less chronicles the psychological breakdown of one Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), never seems to transcend its precise and bluntly honest dialogue to become something more fascinating or involving. It wants so bad to create this world of crass attitudes and lush greens so that the juxtaposition of these beastly people and their beautiful environment will create an intriguing entry point for the unsuspecting. Here's my issue with “Queen of Earth” and movies like it though, movies that enjoy being pretentious by default because of their flowery language and granulated picture intended to elicit a certain, more artsy aesthetic so as to say it's not as concerned about appearance as it is content - they don't do anything but talk in circles (or cycles, as the film would have it). The characters go on and on about how they've trapped themselves in their own destructive patterns, but by the time the final shot flashes on screen it feels more like the film has sabotaged its own self.
The fact is, “Queen of Earth” is as much about style as anything else. In many ways it wants it's free-wheeling, handheld, 16mm style to cover up its lack of actual depth. Modeled on Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach who themselves were inspired by Woody Allen, Perry is only giving us more coddled people with problems that only stem from their own self-absorption rather than any real world issues. While the film attempts to call its characters out for such traits it never becomes about more than deep psychological issues because of others deep psychological issues which, at some point, only renders people as ideas and not actual human beings.
No one is welcome in this pampered, but harsh world where Catherine and Virginia's (Katherine Waterston) friendship exists. Both women interchangeably bring male counterparts so as to only piss off their actual counterpart. They both desire for it to be just the two of them at their getaway lake house (which is really a place owned by Virginia's wealthy family), but this never happens as either Virginia is irritated by Catherine's boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), or a year later after James has broken up with Catherine it is she who is annoyed by the boy next door, Rich (Patrick Fugit), who seems to have a little something going on with Virginia. So, do Catherine and Virginia actually even like one another? We're lead to believe at one time they did and were as close as sisters even though a scene in which they recount past relationships signals their friendship has been distant for some time now. The general gist of what we're then getting into here comes down to exploring two rather repugnant women who we only hope aren't as much of mirrors of ourselves and our selfish thoughts as we're likely to believe they are if we tend to enjoy the nastiness of the film.
This is the enticing and conflicting aspect of the film for as much as I disliked these people, for as much as they dislike one another, it is impossible to not understand the places they're coming from. We all have a selfish side to us, a side that pines to be adored and praised by those most important to us in our lives and that hates to see our safe cocoon of familiarity be destroyed by possible incoming threats. At the same time, we find it strangely comforting to know we possess the knowledge and power to really hurt those closest to us due only to the tight-knit relationship we share with them. Perry, as any of the aforementioned directors and writers, is able to tap into these dark kinds of thoughts we don't like to profess on our social media accounts and relay them in a way that cuts like a knife. Thus, the problem then becomes whether the film itself is good for such reasons or if it's little more than Perry being a braggart and once again putting on display how acutely he can write the broken human psyche. For a film such as this to be something a viewer enjoys it would seem to require the ability to really relish in the hatred and emotional terrorism that is going on, but “Queen of Earth” never reaches such levels of madness.
This isn't to discount the efforts of actors Moss and Waterston who spew dialogue no actual human would speak no matter how prepared they might be to hate someone else. Moss has the showier of the roles as her mascara seems to constantly be running down her face, but Waterston is just as effective as the ice cold Virginia who delivers her insults with chilling disregard and takes Catherine's constant sulking as something of a joke. Unfortunately, none of this is enough to send “Queen of Earth” off its hinges in a good way. The real problem is that both Catherine and Virginia are so egotistical and prone to self-importance that they can't see how ridiculous they sound when they talk about their father being a great artist or how they're not made for the world that utilizes employment to earn money in order to sustain one's self because it isn't essential to their personal prosperity. Viewers, myself included, may echo some of the internal struggles these characters face, but the majority will not deal with them in such an outward fashion we come off as arrogant yet as boldly stupid as these characters do. Perry's point may not even be for us to like these people or relate to them, but instead could be to simply explore a fractured friendship and while the dialogue certainly stings in certain circumstances, there is never anything to suggest any of this is genuine and no matter what Perry's intentions were I have to believe capturing some kind of genuine emotion was part of it.