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Queen of Earth gets under your skin, in your head

Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss

"I love you more than anything, you stupid brat." So goes one of the more pleasant exchanges between Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) in Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth. It's emblematic of their relationship as a whole, which is manic if not quite love/hate — neither extreme fully conveys the murkiness of their dynamic.

The two are constantly under each other's skin and in each other's heads. Figuring out just what's on Catherine's mind has been considerably more difficult of late, however, as the circumstances of this year's retreat to the country home owned by Virginia's family are most unpleasant: Catherine's father has recently passed away and her boyfriend has left her.

Ideally, this dual tragedy would bring the two besties closer together. It doesn't. Brief flashbacks signify that they once got along swimmingly, though there's little evidence of that bond today. Virginia (Ginny to her friends, which you most likely are not) seems little changed, though the difference between then-Catherine and now-Catherine is night and day. Both her relationship with and the death of her father have had a profound effect on the aspiring artist. She lived in his shadow while he was alive and has yet to emerge from it in the aftermath his demise. Gone are the most important threads of her life, so she's come to the woods to unravel.

The secluded estate is either relaxing or unsettling depending on how the light hits it and what sort of mood you're in when you pass the threshold. The two spend most of their stay being increasingly awful to one another, with Perry zeroing in on every source of micro-tension and teasing it out to its uncomfortable conclusion. Passive-aggressive comments turn into deeply personal attacks at a moment's notice, with neither belligerent able to claim the moral high ground by the end.

Catherine is the kind of sufferer who elicits little sympathy. So loudly does she proclaim her misery at every available opportunity that witnessing her descend further into herself is like watching a moth fly helplessly toward the flame. Ingmar Bergman's Persona seems the obvious reference point: two women whose personalities both reflect and repel their other half. But Perry cites Robert Altman's Images as his chief influence — another enigmatic tale of a woman losing it while on a remote vacation. In either case, it's clear he wants to live up to his forebears and potentially outdo them.

The devices Perry uses to convey his heroine's neuroses are familiar: POV shots of partygoers' hands reaching out to grab at Catherine in one fraught scene, smudged eye makeup shown in an uncomfortable closeup at film's beginning, and a creepy smile as she proclaims, "I could murder you right now and no one would ever know." But the writer-director's commitment to psychological horror tropes (to say nothing of Moss' commitment to her character) extends beyond mere borrowing — he understands the tricks of the trade too well for any of them to feel flippant or out of place.

Queen of Earth is a room that keeps getting smaller and smaller, and though the scenery compels, it also horrifies. With a start, we come to realize that perhaps all that's happened to Catherine is she's been left alone in a very real, inescapable way. In what may have been her undoing, she exiled herself from the city to free herself from distraction. What happens when you gaze inward and don't like what you see?

Perry is among the last few independent filmmakers who doesn't allow budgetary concerns to prevent him from shooting on actual film stock, an admirably stubborn decision that's wholly justified by Queen of Earth's arresting visuals. Sean Price Williams' cinematography is as granular as ever, like a photo album full of relatives you don't recognize. The more you get a feel for these people, the more you realize how beyond you they are, as lost to themselves as they are to each other.

This is the second consecutive film of Perry's that Moss has starred in, and she's very much a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The bags beneath her eyes get a little darker with each scene, while her skin gets more and more pale; give her a pixie cut and you could call her Rosemary. She's suffering from a strange, potentially psychosomatic ailment, constantly feeling as though the bones in her face are grinding under her skin. None of the dozen or so dentists, dermatologists, or ENTs has been able to diagnose it as anything physical, but the pain persists.

Misery doesn't exactly love company in this case, though it does create a pervasive sense of dread. The sense that something is deeply awry is ultimately fulfilled, in a climactic sequence that resonates with all the unsettling beauty of a dissonant piano chord; it both confirms and upends the many uneasy feelings Queen of Earth has already inspired.