2015 is turning out to be the year of the 70s throwback. Between the old-school scares and menacing zooms of It Follows and Magic Mike XXL’s offbeat narrative and warm but dim lighting, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth comes to us at the ideal moment. And like those two films, Queen of Earth aspires to be more than the sum of its parts. It is as familiar as it is unfamiliar, recognizable in the micro but wholly unique in the macro. So while it has its fair share of blatant references to Lars von Trier and Ingmar Bergman—particularly the latter’s Persona, from which it cribs quite a bit of its plot—it wraps those references in a distinctly Alex Ross Perry-ish blanket.
Queen of Earth’s key factor is its use of horror genre staples outside of the horror genre. It started with its teaser trailer, which amusingly aped marketing tropes of the 70s and 80s and their unnervingly deep voice-overs. It lacked any clear signifiers that it was meant to be taken comedically, and yet there was an undeniable sense of falsity to the marketing. The film itself is similarly playful in how it communicates its identity. It’s as much a black comedy as it is a relationship drama and a psychological thriller, embodying several tones at once.
Perry crafts a discomfiting experience through this tonal balancing act. The humor is constantly (and deliberately) put at odds with itself, and each joke carries an unspoken sense that maybe we shouldn’t be laughing. This isn’t to say that Queen of Earth is critiquing its audience or itself in this way, nor does it engage in “cringe humor.” Rather, Perry aims to set us on our heels by deconstructing a reaction as primal as laughter. “Just be careful. You never know,” a nameless park ranger tells Catherine (Elisabeth Moss). “Never know what?” she asks. “Exactly,” he replies. As Parks and Rec‘s Perd Hapley might say, this has the cadence of a joke, but isn’t one. And importantly, it also conveys the palpable anxiety which runs through the entire film.
But to focus too much on its comedic elements does a disservice to its drama, in no small amount thanks to the performances of Moss and Katherine Waterston, who plays Catherine’s companion, Virginia. The two women play longtime friends who spend time at an isolated vacation home in the woods after Catherine’s father commits suicide. Their time together slowly reveals just how different they have become, and their clashes escalate to the point of emotional breakdown.
Moss and Waterston have to play their characters as incompatible without losing their personal history in the process. Given that we see almost nothing of these two in the prime of their friendship, Moss and Waterston must communicate two totally contradictory ideas at once, one spoken and the other unspoken. Even marginally pulling this off would be a feat, but the leads go above and beyond.
Though Moss has the more attention-grabbing role—Catherine has much louder and broader emotional beats—Waterston was the stand-out for me in Queen of Earth. She’s given the arguably more difficult task of reacting to Moss’ moments of almost operatic drama in a subdued and naturalistic way. You could teach these two performances as great examples of two different schools of acting: Moss wears her emotional state on her sleeve, whereas Waterston keeps everything just under the surface.
Waterston must let herself be drawn out by Moss, meaning she has to give herself over to another performer in a way that many actors might not be comfortable with. This is complicated by the fact that Catherine comes across as more quiet and submissive, whereas Virginia seems to be a little more brash and dominant. They play these character types in paradoxical ways, furthering the film’s self-contradictory nature.
Despite those contradictions, Queen of Earth isn’t a frustrating film to watch. It builds itself on intentionally shaky ground, but it never topples in confusion. Seeing Perry and his cast manage this makes Queen of Earth a deeply satisfying if tense experience. It’s like a game of Jenga, with each successful move bringing it closer and closer to its inevitable collapse.
Movie Verdict: Win