‘Queen of Earth’ has a perceptive, unsettling grip

L to R: Patrick Fugit, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterson take a less than idyllic canoe ride. Courtesy Sean Price Williams.

L to R: Patrick Fugit, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterson take a less than idyllic canoe ride. Courtesy Sean Price Williams.

BY SEAN EGAN | Alex Ross Perry is a tough nut to crack — everything’s kind of a joke to the writer/director. That is to say, he finds a way to insert humor into every situation he tackles in his films. They all feature less than pleasant characters that speak with some variation of his distinct authorial voice — and that voice never fails at being acidic, and darkly humorous. But (as in last year’s fantastic “Listen Up Phillip”) underneath all of the quips and jabs, there lies an impressively perceptive grip on characters, relationships and emotion.

This penchant for mixing humor into all aspects of his filmmaking is no more disarmingly put to use than in “Queen of Earth,” his fourth feature.

Even more of a departure than usual, the film finds Perry entering the territory of psychological thriller — not necessarily a genre closely associated with having a sense of humor. In this case, it plays out almost as if someone added jokes to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.” But instead of being the trainwreck of tones that may suggest, punctuating the intense psychodrama with humor makes the insanity on display more discomforting — and the laughs, unsettling as they are, hit harder.

Perry’s never been as perceptive and thoughtful with regards to character relationships and internal psychology as he is here — making for his most well-rounded film.

“Queen of Earth” chronicles an intense week, as Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) attempts to work through the double blows of a bad breakup and her father’s death by staying with her best friend Ginny (Katherine Waterson), at the latter’s cabin in the woods. As Catherine slowly but surely unravels completely, viewers are also offered glimpses of another trek to the cabin about a year earlier, when Ginny was working through a rough patch.

The relationship between Catherine and Ginny feels as genuine as any between long-term friends depicted onscreen — displaying both deep-seated affection for each other, and the resent and bitterness that can only build up between people who’ve known each other so long. Perry’s natural ear for dialogue helps to articulate the prickly specifics of the relationship without ever overplaying his hand.

Everything else one needs to know is filled in by the performances. Moss, who turned in one of the best performances of 2014 in “Listen Up Philip,” manages to top herself here. It’s easy to overplay “crazy,” but as Catherine, she shows nuance and a mind-boggling range — managing to be alternately vulnerable and infuriating, hilarious and terrifying, with the slightest change in vocal inflection and body language. As the more grounded Ginny, Waterson conveys the frustration of trying to deal with a person like Catherine, who refuses to be helped, while also legitimately caring for them — as well as displaying some crack comedic timing. The two have a palpable chemistry, which brings their dysfunctional relationship to life.

“Queen of Earth” is also complex in its structural formalism, but unassumingly so. It moves with a chilling, confident rhythm, with Perry intuitively knowing exactly when to relieve tension with either a laugh or gasp (oftentimes using a well-placed reaction shot to do both). His frequent use of close ups is the perfect choice for capturing the small gestures and expressions that speak volumes of the characters’ interpersonal relationships. On the technical end of things, it’s deftly edited by Robert Greene and Peter Levin to highlight similarities between the two leads and the trips depicted in the film, as well as disorient viewers’ sense of temporality. And using his preferred 16mm format, Perry and longtime cinematographer Sean Price Williams create a gorgeous, natural color palette that’s full of deep greens, browns and grays.

In it’s best moments, all the disparate elements coalesce into something great — such as in a stunning long take midway through the film, where the camera pans back and forth between Catherine and Ginny as they recall past lovers. It’s a bittersweet, tense and realistic scene, performed beautifully by the leads, and heighted by the level of craft on display.

As the film draws to a close, a smash cut jarringly juxtaposes one character’s anguished sobs and another’s hysterical laughter — and it’s in this uneasy play between lightness and darkness that “Queen of Earth” gets you. Perry recognizes that the lines between tragedy and comedy, sanity and insanity, and friends and enemies are inextricably blurred. Anchoring his film in this mindset allows “Queen of Earth” to feel real and unsettling.

“Queen of Earth” is written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. 90 minutes. Now playing at IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave., at Third St.) and On Demand.


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