Sometimes a face is enough to anchor a movie. In writer-director Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth, Elisabeth Moss plays Catherine, a young city-dweller who, after recently suffering both her father's death by suicide and a crushing breakup, treks to the country to spend a week with her best friend, Ginny (Katherine Waterston). We're not sure, at first, if Ginny is Catherine's closest ally or her most threatening saboteur — there are times when even the most loyal friend can show aspects of both. But either way, the trauma Catherine has endured is bound to have consequences. Moss leads us, gently, through Catherine's creeping descent into what we all-too-casually call madness. Almost everything she is feeling can be read in Moss's eyes: Unnervingly matte or shining with blank, eerie joy, they're the windows to a soul that's clearly coming apart at the seams.
Catherine's the woman who shows up to a party in smeared lipstick, saying and doing strange things, deeply uncomfortable with making chitchat over plastic cups full of overly acidic wine. She's a woman we can relate to, though definitely not one we want to be. Yet Queen of Earth is also a semi-comedy, often funny in an intentionally bleak way. And that, besides Moss, is what makes it work.
That isn't to say Perry doesn't take his lead character, or her intense pain, seriously. But he also knows the power of a deeply pleasurable movie cliché: The picture is framed as a '70s genre exercise — we're tipped off to that by the opening title card, on which the words "Queen of Earth" are splashed in a flourish of pink script, with "2015" spelled out in Roman numerals at the bottom of the screen. But even if Queen of Earth is presented with something of a sly wink, it's far less gimmicky and self-conscious than Perry's last film, Listen Up Philip, in which Jason Schwartzman played an unbearable young writer emulating an unbearable old one. Moss also appeared in that movie, as the girlfriend Schwartzman ditches in his state of depressed self-regard. Philip hit its truest notes when it showed her drifting through New York, trying to heal her heartbreak using the patented method of JWA (short for Just Walking Around). If only the whole picture had been about her.
With Queen of Earth, Perry gives Moss the vehicle he clearly saw she deserved. It's the sort of movie that, had it actually been released in the '70s, would have been passed off as throwaway drive-in fare — you might have gone to it with a bunch of friends on a lark, only to find its deep chilliness following you home in the night. Perry finds some acute, expressive visuals to map the extent of Catherine's crackup, some of them very simple: In one sequence she sits, a terrified captive lump bundled into a life jacket, in the center of a canoe paddled by Ginny and her sniggering, vaguely menacing boyfriend (played by Patrick Fugit). The water is exceedingly calm; the passenger is anything but. She barely moves, but she's ready to capsize any minute.
There's a lot going on in this modestly scaled movie: It's a meditation on the rickety foundations on which even close friendships can be built, and on the notion of whether or not nature — even with all its soothing sounds and comforting greenery — is really our ally. It's also a teasing admonition that we shouldn't believe everything we see, as well as a stylish, whispery love letter to psychological horror studies like Repulsion, Persona, and possibly Brian De Palma's Sisters. Waterston — so quietly effective as a California dream babe in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice — walks a deft line here: Ginny is part self-absorbed feline, part horrified witness to suffering. Waterston's performance is sturdy and understated, a generous support for all the things the movie asks of Moss. Perry opens the film with a Falconetti-style close-up of Catherine, a woman whose makeup has been blurred by tears just as her eyes have been blurred by pain. In the movie's flashback sequences, she seems normal, whatever that is, and happy, whatever that is. But in Queen of Earth, we're never sure which reality to trust. The only thing we can be sure of is our perception of Catherine's gradual, painful unspooling. To look away from it is everything we wish for. It also happens to be impossible.
Queen of Earth
Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, and Kentucker Audley. 90 minutes. Not rated. Opens Friday, September 25, at Lake Worth Playhouse. Also available on demand.