I’ve read a lot of positive reviews of Alex Ross Perry’s 2014 film Listen Up Philip, but my deep and abiding loathing for Jason Schwartzman ensured that I was never tempted to see the film, despite the fact that it also starred Elisabeth Moss, an actress that I like quite a lot. Perry’s new film, Queen of Earth, has generated a great deal of buzz, and I’m happy to say that I found the film to be deserving of every accolade it’s received so far. Set at a lake house in the Hudson River Valley, the film focuses on the relationship between lifelong friends Catherine (Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), and the way that that people who love each other can cause more damage to those they care about than any outsider can, as well as the fact that, as Virginia says in one of her fantastic monologues, “You can escape other people’s cycles, but you can’t escape your own.”
The previous summer, Virginia invited Catherine to her parent’s lake house for what was supposed to be a week of healing intimacy between friends after Virginia experienced a painful event (implied to be a complicated childbirth before giving the baby up for adoption). Catherine spoiled their getaway by bringing along her codependent boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), with whom Virginia had a mutual open loathing. This summer, Catherine is the person suffering; as revealed in the film’s opening moments, James recently dumped her shortly after her artist father’s suicide, citing a relationship with another woman with whom he had been involved even before Catherine’s father’s “accident.” Catherine, herself an artist who worked for and idolized her father in an unhealthy way, is distraught and breaking down, and her recuperation at the lake house is impeded by the frequent presence of Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s neighbor. He and Virginia were in a long term relationship, but he ignored her attempts to let him down easily when he chose to leave for grad school and she decided to let the relationship end. Both Virginia and Catherine are emotionally ignorant and immature; Virginia was much less traumatized by her experience the previous year than Catherine is by the dissolution of the relationships that she allowed to define her. This is best exemplified in a flashback showing Virginia discussing her hospital experience but ultimately ending her monologue with declarations of how much she despises people who weigh on her emotionally and eventually cuts them out of her life. She dismisses Rich’s desires to maintain their relationship despite the distance between them as delusional, but her attempts to turn the tables on Catherine (by inviting Rich, an interloping lover, to spend time at the lake house during what is supposed to be a healing period for Catherine) are petty and heartless in a way that exceeds any reasonable amount of resentment.
Catherine, for her part, is little better. Although a great deal of the film’s conflict is found in implication, flashbacks show her to be a self-interested child of privilege with little regard for the concerns of others. Bringing James with her to the previous year’s retreat was a mistake that she fails to appreciate the gravity of and does not apologize for, even after Virginia makes her displeasure evident. Further, her reactions to the attempts that people make to connect with her, and the way she perceives all communication as meddling in her personal affairs, paint her as a bit of a brat. Although she is surrounded by people who do not seem to be significantly less privileged than she is (Virginia’s parents’ lake house is beautiful and doubtlessly expensive, and Rich’s parents own a similar, neighboring location, so it’s not as if the two are struggling), her peers perceive her as cold and unapproachable. It’s implied that her late father may have schemed to take advantage of others’ money, but nothing is ever made explicit, and, if her father was the Bernie Madoff of the Hudson River Valley, her denial of his sins and weaknesses despite being his assistant as well as his daughter would make their dislike of her more understandable. Overall, however, our sympathy lies with her, as she descends into the kind of spiraling depression that is rarely depicted onscreen, as she becomes more and more detached from social mores and human behavior, becoming more feral and inhuman with each passing day. Virginia’s failure to realize how much her vengeance is hurting her oldest and dearest friend, and her refusal to send Rich away as he becomes more confrontational and cruel, paints her in a more unsympathetic light, although we also empathize with her inability to properly conceptualize just how deep Catherine’s wounds are.
This is a deeply emotional and cinematically beautiful movie that gets to the heart of interpersonal relationships and how affection can sour due to an individual’s blindness to his or her own faults. The musical cues, increasing tension, and sense of dread are all cribbed from thrillers of the seventies, but the violence on display never transcends from emotional to physical (or does it?), and the intentionally ambiguous ending is at once both a perfect ending and a somewhat unsatisfactory one, although that does not detract from the overall quality of the picture. What’s more, it’s impossible not to note what a funny movie this can be in its smaller moments, as it doesn’t shy away from the ways that a person’s breakdown can often lead to moments of unintentional hilarity. As rare as it is to see a film that so unabashedly stares into the face of mental illness, it’s even rarer to see a film that understands and appreciates that, from the outside, the behaviors of an irrational person can be objectively humorous even if they are subjectively heartbreaking, and the film manages to tread that line in an insightful and deft way. More than just adding more scenes to Moss’s career highlight reel, this movie is the most honest portrayal of unhealthy bonds I’ve seen in as long as I can remember. It will break your heart and then make it sing, and you’ll be haunted by the images and their emotional resonance for weeks.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond