Queen of Earth, a thoroughly nerve-wracking new film by Alex Ross Perry, takes place at a secluded lake house where Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) has come to stay with her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). In flashbacks set during the previous summer, Catherine appears happily coupled and Virginia is anxious and testy. But now their roles seem to have reversed: Virginia has become quieter, more distant, and Catherine, who has since lost her boyfriend to a former lover and her artist father to suicide, teeters on the brink of sanity. The presence of Virginia’s new boyfriend Rich drives a wedge between the two women, whose relationship has already begun to fray. The film might otherwise have been a prickly comedy about a passive-aggressive friendship; instead, Perry makes Catherine so paranoid and resentful, and Virginia so enigmatic, that it comes to feel like a psychological thriller.The sustained nervous quality of Queen of Earth has as much to do with the skittery rhythms of Perry’s screenplay as with Moss’s ragged, moody, occasionally scary performance as Catherine, whose behavior becomes more and more unhinged as the film progresses. Moss, best known for her outstanding work as the tightly wound Peggy Olson on Mad Men, feels as if she’s been cut loose by Perry (she also appeared in his previous effort, last year’s Listen Up, Philip, playing opposite Jason Schwartzman)—in these two films he gives her as much range of motion as she had in the television series’ eight-year run. Waterston’s performance, while less outwardly dynamic, is similarly unsettling. There’s a long scene in which the women sit and rehash their failed love affairs that is downright mesmerizing, not least of which because it’s achieved in a single take. As a whole, Queen of Earth is not entirely successful at taking its premise to new places—it can’t hold a candle to either Repulsion or Persona, two of its most obvious points of reference, or even a rougher-around-the-edges variation on the same themes like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death—but it’s impossible to look away from Moss and Waterston whenever they’re on screen.
The appearance of this film one year after the shaggy misanthropic satire of Listen Up, Philip and three years after The Color Wheel (which could best be described as a mumblecore incest comedy) comes as a surprise: I wouldn’t have guessed that Perry had this material in him. It suggests a filmmaker of greater depth and sensitivity than either of the two previous films, which are more glibly funny, would indicate. Even when it begins to feel derivative, Queen of Earth is interesting enough to make me excited about where Perry might go. So far he has proven himself an astute observer of situations so painfully uncomfortable that they can either be the stuff of comedy or horror. That’s as good place as any from which to start.