Written and Directed by: Riley Stearns
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Leland Orser, and Lance Reddick
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I've moved up a level, Ansel. I'm changing."
The best horror movies make uneasiness look easy. You feel them coming, yet they still creep up on you. By the time youíve really caught up on to them, theyíve settled under your noseóthen they blow up right in your face. Faults is one of these movies, a deceptively simple cinematic Russian nesting doll that keeps revealing layers you didnít even know it had. As itís concerned with cults and rewiring brains, it follows that it relies on a keen sense of misdirection to lure viewers into its own traps.
Director Riley Stearns immediately establishes the deception and uneasiness with a weirdly off-putting opening sequence that charts a shitty day in the life of Ansel Roth (Leland Orser). A disgraced cult expert doomed to slum a public speaking circuit to bored audiences, he canít even eat breakfast without courting drama via expired vouchers. As if getting dragged out of a two-bit hotel lobby restaurant over a $4.75 bill werenít humiliating enough, his gig ends with him eating the floor after a physical confrontation with a disgruntled family member (A.J. Bowen) from a former case. The indignities mount when his agent dispatches an enigmatic henchman (Lance Reddick) to shake him down for money, an encounter that leaves him sucking his tail pipe in a botched suicide attempt.
The Coens would appreciate how Stearns spins the tale of this absurdly pitiful sadsack into a dark comedy thatís uncomfortable, pathetic, and totally disarming. When a couple enlists Ansel to rescue their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a cult and ďdeprogramĒ her, itís easy to assume his mission will be a black comedy of errors. While the abduction (which features Ansel bickering with henchmen over their choice of a motel room, among other inappropriate chatter) plays to those expectations, the filmís first twist is waiting in the wings: it turns out Ansel is actually pretty damn good at his job, and employs some rather ruthless tactics to boot, like not letting Claire sleep for twenty-four hours.
But the more predictable twist is that Claire herself is game for this bout, which unfolds inside of a dingy room and takes on an increasingly disquieting tenor as the two circle around each other. While exchanging blows, each is utterly convinced they have the advantage in this bizarre test of wills. At various points, the audience is similarly convinced: there are times when it seems like Ansel has broken Claire down, yet there are moments when his creeping doubt is obvious. His managerís looming presence adds a further layer of intensity: for such a small-scale film, Faults has a lot of moving parts, all of which tiptoe towards a fatalistic climax. Only one thing is for sure: no one is leaving this motel room without bearing some type of scarsóif they leave at all.
Faults glides on the performances of its two leads. Stearnsís direction is restrained and leans heavily on this duo, a wise choice that sees Orser evolve from a solid character actor to a full-blown leading man. Youíre never quite sure how to take Ansel: when heís defiantly lapping ketchup into his mouth as a restaurant manager insists he leaves, heís a sad little goon. Maybe he deserves to have his ribs broken, you think, as he crumples to the floor after taking a beating. Orser finds a despairing loneliness in him, though. Even before Stearnsís script makes his motivations more explicit, Orser hints at Anselís desperation. He says he doesnít give a shit about anything anymore, and this assignment feels like an opportunity to pay off his debt, but thereís also something quite genuine about his desire to help Claire, even if itís just a roundabout means of helping himself.
Winstead is similarly slippery as Claire, the ostensible victim here. Her initial defiance yields to a blank, almost catatonic resignation that almost evolves into full-blown Stockholm syndrome. Once her parentsówho are stowed away in the adjacent roomóget involved in the process, she especially transforms into a different type of victim, one that hints at the past trauma that drove her to the cult in the first place. Speaking of, Winstead is at her most mesmerizing when discussing Faults, the mysterious group she has always been a part of, spiritually speaking. So much of this dialogue is stock cult mumbo-jumbo, but Winsteadís delivery is so resolute and convincing that you find her drawn into her spellóand thatís when you begin to realize that Faults has hooked you in.
Between the minimal locations and the two-hander approach, itís easy to dismiss Stearnsís direction as somewhat stage-bound. Doing so is a disservice to his understated but precise camerawork, particularly his use of fragmenting and suffocating close-ups. Simple conversations have a rhythm that feels like puzzle pieces locking together as the cuts fall into place. Stearnsís compositions have a way of suggesting dread, as wellóthereís a critical moment that relegates some disturbing imagery to the background, a tactic thatís more effective than capturing it up close because itís so clinical and nightmarish. Like Ansel, youíre not quite sure to believe what youíre seeing here.
Faults is clever enough to draw attention to its overt creepiness only when it needs to, which isnít that often. For the most part, Stearns is restrained enough to let his film sidle up to you. When he does begin to reveal his hand, it's a last bit of misdirection: somewhere along the way, he switches the cards behind his back and leaves audiences with shocks and surprises that have been trembling beneath the surface, lying in wait with the sinister, rumbling electronic score that only bellows when it the film must unleash it. As the cult's ethos explains, ďa fault is a fracture, a place where pressure builds,Ē and Stearns essentially places his characters along a series of them. Watching them stumble and recollect themselves as they crack is funny, gripping, and horrifying all at once. Buy it!
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