Elisabeth Moss’s most famous performance to date, on television as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, is a work of layered complexity and a superb example of gradual character evolution, with Moss growing into the role as Peggy did into her male-dominated world, handling the ever-shifting power dynamics with increasing confidence. Her charismatic presence, however, had not yet been given a role on the big screen that merited her considerable talents. Perhaps the closest was her role in last year’s Listen Up Philip as Ashley, a secondary character turned into the film’s most complete creation by her gravitas. It’s no surprise, then, that the writer-director behind that film, Alex Ross Perry, would elevate Moss to the leading role of his latest film, Queen of Earth, and the result is an earth-shattering performance in a film that solidifies Perry’s place among the most exciting filmmakers working in American cinema today.
Catherine (Moss) is at the bitter end of a romantic relationship when the film begins. In the tour de force opening sequence, a mostly sustained close-up of her face introduces us to a woman on the verge of emotional collapse. Moss’s ferocious energy is bursting at the frame’s seams, but the scene quickly cuts to the serene surroundings of a lakeside villa, where she is retreating with her best friend, Ginny (Katherine Waterston).
As it transpires, Catherine and Ginny spent their vacation together exactly a year previously at the same spot, a minimalist building whose precise architecture contributes significantly to the film’s eeriness. Tensions are high between the two friends, owing as much to Catherine’s post-breakup depression as to Ginny’s inability to deal with her friend’s state of distress. Worse yet, Ginny’s friend Rich (an expertly cast Patrick Fugit) enters the picture too, a sly presence who glides smoothly between being the voice of reason and a predatory creep.
The ensuing chamber drama escalates in tension as Catherine’s anxiety and depression give way to delusion and psychosis. The invasion of Catherine’s space and the breaking of her illusion of intimate safety with Ginny slide her further in a downward spiral, a progression that Moss’s performance captures with astonishing precision. Charting the constantly evolving and declining state of Catherine’s mental health, Moss switches alternatively between childish naiveté, tragic helplessness and dangerously vicious authority. She is scary, frustrating and heartbreaking, often within the space of seconds. The performance is so powerful, the character so thoroughly hers, it’s difficult to remember after the film that we lived with Moss in another skin for more than seven years.
Perry’s style, loosely structured and aesthetically frenzied despite the intricacy of his films, is perfectly suited to externalizing Catherine’s internal chaos. Although in one instance—a party sequence featuring a rather clichéd depiction of Catherine’s feelings of claustrophobia in a crowded space—the film falls victim to a heavy-handed narrative choice and unsubtle execution, more often, smaller moments such as Catherine’s interactions with Rich, or her reminiscences about the past with Ginny, become crucial in expressing her emotions. Devoid of the dry wit of Listen Up Philip and the acerbic, aloof humor of The Color Wheel, Perry’s first foray into thrillers in Queen of Earth may look like a departure for him, but thematically he is just as attentive to character detail as in his previous films.
Other familiar faces remain behind the camera from his past films. Editor Robert Greene and cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the latter Perry’s collaborator on all his pictures so far, are in typically strong form. Williams’s jittery camera and foggy images lend the film an authentic and unnerving atmosphere, but Greene is the real star of the show. An expert in blending fiction and nonfiction modes as a director in his own right, Greene’s inventive cuts transport the audience between the present and the past, between reality and imagination, with devilish glee. Moss expertly portrays a woman in the process of slipping into oblivion; Greene pushes her, and the audience, over the edge.