Review: Queen of Earth

Produced by Joe Swanberg Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is a horror-not-really-horror film about friendship, battered egos, entitlement, shame and falling apart. 

Perry is a director who has taken to making indie dramas about spoilt brats, dissecting for our viewing pleasure/discomfort their often insufferable, smug personalities. In Listen Up Philip, the titular character was a literary genius and misanthrope succumbing to his darker moods and impulses under the malicious tutelage of an older, revered American author. The title is pun-like because Philip won't listen to anybody. He's beyond rescuing from douchebaggery. 

Queen of Earth is something a bit more emotionally charged and sorrowful, though, still dealing with 'that world' of bright young things, their life trials and the comfort blanket of privilege. Philip (Jason Schwartzmann) was depicted as a complete and utter jerk, but Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) is pitched as a more sympathetic (if still annoying) figure. Mental health issues, after all, should not be coloured by class or wealth prejudice. Queen of Earth isn't about a self-centred posh Manhattanite having a major strop, her dilemmas exacerbated by a lack of self-awareness.
An ace card in Perry's deck is the decision to shoot Queen of Earth like it's a 1970s low-budget exploitation film, without going full-on retro pastiche. It is restrained, tasteful and very well done. Perry shot on 16mm, with the shallow depth of field lending greatly to the mood of ill-ease as much as the softly golden lighting and shadow-play in evening-set scenes. 

Catherine and her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) spend their summer vacations needling each other and pushing one another’s buttons, while also declaring their undying friendship. Their individual faults have grown into pressure points and targets for mockery and disdain. At times, you wonder if they’re even friends at all and not just two adults clinging desperately to cherished childhood memories of idyllic times and play. 

Cutting between events set over two summers, before and after a scandal involving Catherine’s artist father, she was his personal assistant, a fact Virginia brings up to score points on the subject of nepotism, Perry has given Queen of Earth the unmistakable tone of a horror movie without ever committing to generic devices and elements. Virginia often hovers on the edge of the frame or in the background like a psycho killer waiting to pounce, and the scene in which she and Catherine go canoeing is ripe with the sort of tension straight out of a slasher flick. Virginia is a creepy lurker and we never really know what she's thinking about her disturbed friend. Their relationship has got a definite love-hate dynamic going on, or is it more haunted and bogged down by a sense of duty borne out of decades-old friendship neither can admit has turned south? Is this a film, then, about the anxiety of cutting emotional ties?

The presence of Patrick Fugit’s smarmy neighhour/boyfriend, Rich, too, acts as a deliberate third wheel/spanner in the works. He is placed within the drama as a destabilising agent of change. If Virginia spends time with Rich, she does not spend time with Catherine. Unlike the staple of any horror movie, there is no great big blood-and-guts climax or showdown. Tensions and intentions do not turn deadly. Catherine doesn’t run down a terrified Virginia through the woods with a chainsaw. Even if you get the idea that sometimes it's what she'd love to do more than anything else.

The film does not skimp on alarming weirdness, though. There are unsettling scenes and freaky asides. Virginia catching her friend lolling on a hammock, talking on the phone and acting secretive, is revealed to be something a tad bizarre: she's talking to herself. Virginia, being a nosey git, picked up another phone in the house and eavesdropped. She asks Catherine, in what by now is a typically bullish way, who she was talking to? The girl's answer confirms all is not well. Another wacky moment is when Catherine finds a collapsed man outside the house, brings him and charmingly puts it to him that "I could kill you and nobody would ever know about it." 

Perhaps the one moment Queen of Earth commits to aping a genre experience fully is the house party scene. The party-goers, all lost in talk and drinking wine, are presented as threatening figures. Catherine stumbles through the room looking timid and afraid. She imagines them not only pointing at her, but poking her body fiercely, and she collapses yelling on the floor. Perry directs the sequence like a master of horror, under-lighting the room so as to replicate not only Catherine’s psychological state and unsound mind.

Elizabeth Moss, of course, dominates the film with a tremendous performance. She is exceptional all the way through. Katherine Waterston, too, excels as the frosty pal watching her (supposedly) best mate going through a traumatic time and not really helping matters because she's a bit tired of all the bullshit. Catherine and Virginia are a right pair of odd ducks, but they are compellingly written and portrayed, their sometimes-bitchy tête-à-têtes a duel of egos marking the slow death of a friendship achieved by a thousand tongue lashings and stink-eye stares.