Queen of Earth  is a psychological thriller. It follows two friends, Catherine and Virginia—portrayed by Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston respectively—as they revisit a lake house. After the death of her father and a breakup with a serious boyfriend, this getaway is part of Catherine’s emotional recovery. Things, however, do not go quite as intended. This is the latest addition to Listen Up Philip  Director Alex Ross Perry’s filmography.
“I could murder you right now and no one would ever know”… Elisabeth Moss steals the show. Moss makes Queen of Earth her platform to push herself to some emotional extremities: she is completely unafraid and unflinchingly committed to her character, becoming the ugliest of the ugly; the craziest of the crazy; and, the calmest of the calm. And this is set up immediately. The first image of this film is a close-up of Catherine’s ruddy face, mascara smudged and running, as she speaks to her partner about their breakup. The camera fixes on her face for an uninterrupted 85 seconds. This opening scene demands attention and serves multiple purposes. By starting mid-conversation, fixing on Catherine’s crying face, and designing and lighting Moss’s face grotesquely, Perry commands his audience’s interest, establishes a specific tone and sets up the premise of his narrative. It’s an economical and well-crafted opener. It’s also one of the most disheveled and deranged of Moss’s onscreen appearances. She is visceral and effective from beginning to end. Her face is nuanced in its expressiveness. Her voice is hauntingly calm as she delivers some of the most unhinged dialogue, which makes her all the more imposing despite her slight figure. Moss, once again, shows that she has considerable acting chops where Queen of Earth is a welcome addition to her growing body of impressive work (Mad Men, Top of the Lake, The One I Love).
“I love you more than anything, you stupid brat”… Queen of Earth is, first and foremost, an exploration of Catherine’s psyche; but, perhaps an equally important aspect of this film lies in the exploration of the female friendship. Catherine and Virginia are old friends. Perhaps they once even considered each to be the other’s best friend. This is, and will not, be the case for the duration of this film. And this should come as no surprise, yes? After all, as Larry David will, in his half-angry half-enthusiastic way, ask: what is interesting about two people who get along? And this too is established immediately. The first time that we see Catherine and Virginia share the screen, they are quite literally physically separated. Catherine is shown walking to the lake house, but the camera will pull out wider to reveal that Virginia is actually in a car, crawling adjacent to Catherine, wondering why she is walking. The first shot of the two inside the lake house is composed as if a pseudo-split screen is present: hinting at the gulf that exists between them now. Even though they physically occupy the same space, they couldn’t appear more discordant with one another. Their bodies are angled differently, positioned differently and even placed at different heights. So much is said with so little that this is a testament to Perry’s grasp of his craft. This is a friendship that anyone who has grown apart from a close friend will recognize: it’s bittersweet. Mix in Catherine’s troubled psychology and the result is a compelling character study.
“My face hurts”… Accompanying the melancholic images and Catherine’s strange behavior is an impressively eerie soundtrack composed by former collaborator Keegan DeWitt. It’s sharp, cold, frantic, persistent. The cool tones of piano strings and handbells create an arrhythmic kaleidoscope of haunting sounds befitting of the general sense of unease that permeates Queen of Earth. This is a terrifying and unsettling soundtrack. And when paired with Moss’s icy, piercing glare or maniacal laugh, Queen of Earth becomes the stuff of nightmares. Perry truly uses sound well and this is demonstrated again when he uses sound to characterize Catherine’s psychology: When she comments on her quiet surroundings, the crinkle of a bag of chips is designed jarringly loud. This mundane sound of the every day is crisper and more disturbing than necessary—all of which seems to comment on Catherine’s inability to cope with the banalest and commonplace of things in the wake of her emotional trauma.
This queen will not inherit the earth; she will make you sweat… on the inside of your face.
Related: The film Queen of Earth has qualified onto Borrowing Tape's "Best Films of 2015" list
of recommended movies released in 2015 which received a movie rating of 4 and above.
Queen of Earth