Riley Stearns’ debut feature, Faults, focuses on life within a cult. It revels in a brand of subversion that breaks individuals down until they give up all self-control to another. That absurd and pervasive pathology fittingly matches the form of the film, which often finds itself caught in a tonal battle between wacky tragedy and wry drama. Were it only defined by its style, Faults would likely spiral into the same kind of sad mess its protagonists find themselves in, but the film is anchored by two lead performances that defy the setup’s easy categorization. And, more importantly, Stearns allows the actors space to organically bring a human dimension to Faults’ exploration of psychological control.
Faults refers to an eponymous fictional cult; the group’s collective beliefs, while not explicitly laid out for the audience, reflect the apocalyptic, suicide clans that became the source of fear and fascination in the ’70s (such as Heaven’s Gate), and later in the ’90s. Following an attempt to save a victim of a cult gone horribly wrong, Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), a now-disgraced author, is left penniless and a total sad sack. And yet, at a reading of his second, incredibly unsuccessful book about breaking subjects free of cult influence, he is approached by the parents of a young woman in need of rescuing. After initially declining, Ansel finds himself in the dangerous position of owing a lot of money to his violent manager, and so he decides to help to alleviate his debt.
After tracking down the daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Ansel holds her in the confines of a motel room where much of the film takes place. It’s not quite a two-hander, as there are regular intrusions from other characters, including Claire’s parents, as well as the menacing Mick (Lance Reddick), who’s been sent to collect the money for Ansel’s manager. But the central dynamic of the film rests on Ansel and Claire, as he tries to wrestle control of her mind from the grasp of the cult’s pernicious ideology. As their mercurial relationship forms and changes, the fluidity of their respective senses becomes evident, ultimately driving them toward a reckoning and forcing them to decide to whom they’ll submit self-control.
Leland Orser is the true lead, but, atypically, his performance is the more unhinged and demoralizing of the two. He begins in a bad place and only descends further as he begins to lose his last grip on life and reality. As cult member Claire, Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivers the film’s most grounded and mesmerizing portrait. Her performance entrances everyone around her, characters and audience alike. Under her spell, the film gains its drive and momentum powering heavily emotional turns, and then surrealist ones. Winstead’s cool, forceful performance also provides a necessary balance against the film’s quirkier comedic touches, which at first threaten to derail it. It’s in her shadow that the eccentricities are rendered absurd, and as the rest of the film slowly acquiesces to her presence, Stearns reveals his true intent. The decision for a director to submit to such a strong actress is hardly a difficult decision at all in this case; it’s the right aesthetic choice.
3 stars out of 4