Every now and then, there comes a performance that reminds you of the capabilities of "complex" women. I'm talking about ones that are insecure but not hopeless. Bette Davis made a career out of this. Rosamund Pike received an Oscar nomination (Best Actress - Gone Girl) for this. In director Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth, Elisabeth Moss joins the list with a performance that is intense yet nuanced, psychopathic yet controlled, and selfish yet smart. From the opening scene where her running make-up and withering voice introduces the audience to this world with an uncomfortable close-up, this is Moss' moment to prove that she's more than Peggy Olsen from Mad Men. She's an actress with capabilities that have yet to be fully explored. It is also why Queen of Earth may be one of this year's unassuming masterpieces.
The premise is simple: two friends (Moss and Katherine Waterston) spend a getaway at a lake house. As boyfriends show up and Moss' tragic past comes to the surface, the tension rises. Moss is forced to grieve from the stress that she is inadequate to her successful father - who also gave her a successful job that has since labeled her as a benefactor of nepotism. The relaxing vacation suddenly turns into a crisis of conscience and pits the two friends together as they discover their different wants in life. Moss plays the repressed Catherine, whose calm demeanor hides her control freak mannerisms that slowly bubble. Waterston stars as Ginny, who is more secure likely because she earned everything in her life the hard way.
A lot of the benefit should be given to Perry, who had considerable acclaim last year for Listen Up, Philip, which also co-starred Moss. It was a film that played with visual style to imply a writer's decline into arrogance. It isn't as twee as it sounds, with the ending result being more melancholy. While his last film may have been funnier, Queen of Earth is one that substitutes it for psychological profiling of characters. The shots are more ominous, with each shot feeling in some ways like a skewered b-movie horror film clashed with art house. It is one of the most distinct films of the year, and the unnerving soundtrack adds a meditative technique to the atmosphere not seen since Jonny Greenwood's work on The Master. He takes you to uncomfortable corners of the small cast's personal space and rattles up the tension in the process.
With Waterston already on the rise as a star after last year's Inherent Vice, she gives a thankless performance as the best friend who is more observant than helpful. She stares, unresponsive to her friend's mental decay. Like Perry's direction, the best moments are often caught in the silence, where friends observe each other and try to communicate through body language. The film is implicit about many themes, especially regarding the moods of anyone not named Catherine. It is, after all, her story as told from the perspective of a woman who is experiencing personal pain for the first time in her life. She is irrational, skewering happiness with petty jealousy that is reflective even in the way that Moss smiles. You wait for that lunge into the insanity, wondering what will be the snapping point.
When it comes, it hits like a ton of bricks. It isn't the outbreak we expect as evident by decades of women madly destroying rooms and lives with a hyena scream. It is more subtle than that. In Moss' best moment as an actress so far, she delivers an acidic monologue. The camera doesn't cut as her make-up runs. Her voice doesn't waver, choosing to focus heavily on her confidence among the uncertainty. She is flat toned, stewing in her words. We usually save this behavior for our serial killers and complicated male protagonists. There's usually more of a spectacle surrounding a scene as powerful as this. Yet at the end, there's only Moss giving a shocking truth that emphasizes the incredible force of her character's quiet moments. She has a breakdown, but it isn't what you're thinking. It is far more fascinating because of that.
There's a lot about the film that feels retro. Perry's cinematography recalls films from the New Hollywood Era. Even the title cards recall something incongruous to modern tradition. Yet it adds to the appeal of the film. It isn't novelty when the closing credits have stylized cards that duplicate words in a claustrophobic fashion. It gives depth to the psyche of Catherine, whose final laugh is haunting as it plays momentarily over these credits. Moss makes everything work not by chewing scenery, but by proving that female roles can be interesting and also delusional. We end the story not with any truth of Catherine's future, but of finally understanding the narcissism that hides under her smile. For some, it isn't a great reveal. For me, it creates one of the most compelling characters in film this year with every imperfection adding to a greater understanding of insanity.
Queen of Earth is one of the best films of the year with two of the best female performances of 2015. With Perry again proving that his niche style is more than a gimmick, I have faith in his future as a director as he continues to explore complicated characters. Don't let it's immediate release on video on demand cause you to hesitate. This is a film with charisma and energy to spare that a lot of films so far this year have lacked. It also is one of the first true ushering moments of Moss' career into an interesting film career. Good luck finding too many performances as great as this during the Fall. There may be a few, but they likely won't be as wonderfully complicated as this.