by Susan Brancaccio
From the October 2015 IssueCatherine (Elisabeth Moss), seeking emotional exile after experiencing an unpleasant breakup as well as the traumatic loss of her father, agrees to go on a one-week getaway at her friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lake house. What should be a relaxing break from reality instead only deepens Catherine’s feelings of loss and inadequacy. Specifically, Virginia’s disposition toward Catherine, which ranges from vaguely supportive to simply cruel, can be seen as possibly pushing Catherine further and further toward madness. As memories of the two friends’ week at the lake house one year prior are woven into the film, we begin to see that a role reversal has taken place between the two women. Last year, Virginia was the one dealing with an emotional trauma — the loss of an unborn child. And it was Catherine who seemed impatient with her friend’s grieving process; ignorant of her timeline of recovery and recuperation.
As days pass at the lake house and the parallel situations play out before us, animosity and distrust begin to permeate the tranquil location. While the cinematography captures a peaceful lakefront and soothing landscape, an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia seems to take hold in and around the lake house. Catherine becomes paranoid and fearful of Virginia’s presence and Virginia indulges in moments of watching her friend slowly fall apart. This is no longer a relaxing place for either woman and it begins to feel that way for the audience as well. The whimsical, yet compelling score lingering in the background of the film adds to this almost twisted atmosphere. Although Queen of Earth would not be classified as a horror film, the nature of Catherine and Virginia’s friendship is terrifying in its own right. Not only do the two seem to approach one another in a passive-aggressive manner, they revel in one another’s misery and flaws.
All in all, the film’s study of the two female characters makes for a suspenseful, eerie, and tense viewing experience. Their friendship, with each passing minute, seems more and more like it is heading towards the same inevitable fate of an ocean front property — perched on a cliff, its foundation slowly eroding, waiting for a hurricane to come and violently disassemble it. Throughout the film you find yourself waiting and waiting for this tumultuous end — and it is through this slow build up of tension, through each passing wave, that Perry creates such an intriguing story. This film not only raises questions about who we choose to keep close to us, but also critiques the way in which people tend to build themselves up by tearing other people down. Additionally, through Catherine’s relationship with her boyfriend, her father, and most especially Virginia, we begin to understand how codependence plays an important (but also devastating) role in someone’s life.
While the story, script and overall mood of the film are executed very well, the acting and cinematography are just as phenomenal, if not more so. Elisabeth Moss, and Katherine Waterston deliver realized performances that capture the callous and emotional attitudes of their characters. Moss in particular delivers one of the best performances of the year. Between the breakup scene that the film opens with and the passionate monologue towards the end of the film, Moss seems to leave everything on the table so much so that it’s nearly impossible to separate the actor from the character. Likewise, Sean Price Williams’ cinematography not only fills the film with interesting scenery, but also manages to use the mundane (such as a shot of a bedroom or a living room) to promote the overall uncomfortable atmosphere of the film. Ultimately, Queen of Earth is not only a visual marvel, but a fascinating exploration of interpersonal relationships that establishes Alex Ross Perry as one of the great young American filmmakers.
5 out of 5 stars