Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Faults (2014)

Going by the fashion, the film takes place at the end of the 70s, beginning 80s, though one could imagine the sort of mildly sleazy decay of the interior decoration existing for quite a bit longer than that in the right/wrong place. Some time ago, Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) was a successful cult expert and deprogrammer, with his own TV show as well as a successful book, and if you don’t think that makes him sound like a sleazy kind of guy taking advantage of the people he is supposedly helping? He surely was, and you’re a much more optimistic person than I, imaginary reader.

After a catastrophic failure, Ansel’s life went down the crapper. He lost his show, his wife, his money, and his self respect. A second, self-published book nobody wants to buy has left him with debts to his dubious agent (Jon Gries). Ansel’s still trying to hawk the book by holding seminars in less than respectable hotels for the excellent price of a bed and a meal, but his agent’s getting antsy about getting his money back, sending a very threatening man (Lance Reddick) to put the fear into him.

So, despite his understandable and well founded reluctance to do this sort of thing ever again, Ansel agrees when a middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) ask him to kidnap and deprogram their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is involved in a cult known under the catchy name of Faults. Given Ansel’s own mental state, outside influences, and certain things he doesn’t know about, the project doesn’t go well, and it becomes ever more difficult to decide who is (de)programming whom.

The plot synopsis doesn’t really show how deeply strange – or truly Weird – writer/director Riley Stearns’s (who also just happens to be the husband of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, which is the sort of nepotism I can really get behind if it leads to films like this) uncategorizable Faults is. There’s that special sort of clever artificiality surrounding much of the production – the early 80s interior design, the smuttiness of the places, even the acting – that on first contact looks like naturalism but, once one looks at it closer, begins to feel slightly off, even absurd. It becomes increasingly difficult to decide what here is to be treated at face value; what as irony, and what as metaphor, the film becoming a world where all, any, or none of these things might be true about any given element. Even the early, clearly darkly comedic or absurd scenes in the film that establish how deeply fucked up Ansel’s existence is look different in hindsight – there’s sadness and a vague threat in there too, if you look at them from a different angle, and shifting perspectives and transforming roles are quite important in Faults.

One might be tempted to call this approach to movie reality Lynchian, if that weren’t by now a cliché in itself when not used to describe the actual works of David Lynch, and if it didn’t suggest a film that tries (and fails) to copy Lynch, when the film at hand is in fact very much something with a personality and a style all its own. Stearns direction is calm and assured, with just the right amount of surrealism when it is needed, and a wonderful (or horrifying, depending on one’s tastes) dead pan way of showing the strange and the difficult to explain.

I have read complaints the plot of the film is rather predictable but I think this only applies if you’re looking at it in its most basic form. Indeed, the general direction the film is going to take is quite clear early on, but this really isn’t a film that wants to be a twisty thriller, and the way the film gets where it ends up and what is shows in between is clearly more important to it than being surprising. And, to be honest, when it comes to the strange, telling, and very possibly metaphorical detail, Faults is often very surprising, if not necessarily easy to grasp. Which is not a problem for me in movies in general, and most certainly not in one that is quite this hypnotic in its individual strangeness and strangenesses.

Faults is a also a wonderfully acted movie with a fine cast even in the more minor roles, and just great performances by Orser - who makes someone who isn’t exactly easy to like relatable without turning him into someone clearly made to be relatable - and Winstead - who goes from fragile to enigmatic to just plain creepy and back again with an ease and a naturalness that is a bit disturbing.

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