Here are reviews of two of my favorite American indies — Queen of Earth and The Mend — to turn up in Chicago in 2015. These capsules originally appeared at Cine-File in September.
Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH (New American)
If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that there is no landscape more wondrous than that of the human face. In a much-remarked upon shot in LISTEN UP PHILIP, Alex Ross Perry’s formidable previous film, the camera held on Elisabeth Moss’s visage in close-up as she silently ran through a gamut of emotions, a single long take that constituted a welcome interlude of radical empathy in a film otherwise deliberately brimming with unpleasantness. In a way, QUEEN OF EARTH, Perry’s fourth and best feature to date, picks up where that shot in PHILIP left off: with an extraordinarily gripping close-up of Moss’s tear-stained, mascara-smeared face, as her character, Catherine, confronts her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), about his infidelity in the immediate wake of her father’s suicide. This double whammy of misfortune soon sends the New York City-bred Catherine packing for a lakeside retreat with her childhood friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) in order to take stock of her life and perhaps engage in a little female bonding. Things don’t go according to plan, however, as Catherine slowly becomes mentally unglued over the course of a week’s ostensible “R & R.” While large swaths of this film’s dialogue would not have felt out of place in either of Perry’s previous two films, acerbic comedies marked by extremely literary screenplays (2014’s LISTEN UP PHILIP and 2011’s THE COLOR WHEEL), the particular context of who is speaking to whom, and where, pushes the content here into a very different and welcome direction–the realm of psychological horror. While Perry freely assimilates influences from both the “high” (e.g., PERSONA, REPULSION, etc.) and “low” (e.g., CARNIVAL OF SOULS, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, etc.) ends of the cinematic spectrum, QUEEN OF EARTH resonates not because it’s any kind of post-modern pastiche but because of what it has to say about real-world human psychology. In particular, Perry taps into universal fears and anxieties about class privilege and nepotism (with the epithet of “spoiled brat” being pointedly hurled back and forth between the female leads). Ultimate interpretations will vary wildly from viewer to viewer (Are the main characters two halves of a single personality? Are the “present-day” scenes a twisted revenge fantasy being projected by Ginny at the conclusion of the “flashbacks?”); I suggest catching a matinee with a friend and afterwards doing coffee, over which you may want to extensively theorize about What It All Means. Director Alex Ross Perry and Producer Joe Swanberg in person at the 7 and 9:30pm Saturday screenings. (2015, 90 min, DCP Digital) MGS
John Magary’s THE MEND (New American)
There are aspects of THE MEND that will seem familiar to anyone acquainted with the microbudget American filmmaking scene of the 2010s: the New York City-apartment locations, the white thirty-something urban professional characters, naturalistic dialogue and acting, and a near-plotless series of caustically funny scenes examining the tensions that arise between lovers, friends, and siblings. This is also precisely why any attempts to describe this first feature by writer/director John Magary make it difficult to convey how much it distinguishes itself through formal mastery and narrative ingenuity. From the controlled chaos of the opening scene–a daringly elliptical and fast-paced montage depicting the protagonist, Mat (Josh Lucas), first fucking then fighting with his girlfriend, Andrea (Lucy Owen), immediately after wrestling on the couch with her pre-adolescent son, Ronnie (Cory Nichols)–THE MEND establishes itself as a film of uncommon originality and aesthetic diversity. Like Arnaud Desplechin, a director he admires, Magary resorts to nearly every stylistic trick in the book in order to best aid the atmosphere of a given scene–an “anything goes” approach that sees him alternating between handheld camerawork and smooth tracking shots, long takes and brisk cutting, irising in and out (as in a silent film), and peppering the action with a seemingly incongruous, dissonant orchestral score (the kind that Mathieu Chabrol used to compose for his father Claude), which lends this ostensible comedy/drama the flavor of a thriller and makes nearly every scene seem full of potential violence. Of course, there’s nothing inherently virtuous about such a crazy-quilt mixture of moods and stylistic flourishes but the approach is wholly appropriate when applied to this particular subject matter: the competitive, occasionally toxic, love/hate relationship between two brothers. The older brother, the asshole-ish Mat, is a mooching, couch-surfing hipster with vague plans to incorporate his “web design” business. The younger brother, Alan (Stephen Plunkett), is a burgeoning yuppie with his own apartment and fiancé, who would appear to have his life together. Much of the fun to be had in watching THE MEND comes from observing the expert performances of Lucas and Plunkett, who infinitely complicate the initial impressions their characters make even as the film studiously avoids anything resembling a conventional resolution. (2014, 111 min, Unconfirmed Format) MGS