At once overwrought and inert, Queen of Earth essentially cancels itself out. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry has made a psychological drama that is both a self-conscious homage and a frustrating dither, one that fails to make use of an amazing actress in the (non) process.
That would be Elisabeth Moss, who shone in Perry’s Listen Up Philip but is undercut by the schematic he’s concocted here. Clearly influenced by the chamber dramas of Ingmar Bergman (and in turn the Bergman-influenced films of Woody Allen), Queen of Earth centers on a reunion between two longtime friends at a lake house. Catherine (Moss) is fresh off a pair of devastating personal blows (the movie opens with her delivering a mascara-smeared soliloquy of despair), yet Virginia (Katherine Waterston) seems only mildly interested in offering much support. And so a series of mind games ensues, with misty shots of the lake itself and a spooky score by Keegan DeWitt providing most of the atmospheric tension.
Despite the focus and care given to it, the central relationship in Queen of Earth ultimately registers as a contrivance. There is no real trajectory in any direction once Catherine and Virginia’s passive-aggressive dynamic has been established. (There are intermittent flashbacks that build to a climactic reveal, but all that really does is flip-flop the antagonism.) Similarly, a subplot involving a neighbor (Patrick Fugit) who shows up and immediately butts heads with Catherine is rooted less in the psychology of the characters than a narrative need for some sort of outside friction.
It’s up to the actors, then, to make what they can of this. Unfortunately, they’re mostly reduced to monologues. Such scenes can be high-wire opportunities for performers, but they can also be straitjackets. This is particularly true for someone like Moss. She could be described as an “aside” actor – meaning the words she directs toward the camera are often the least interesting thing about her performances. Instead, watch the shockingly instinctual manner of her facial gestures or the way the repression of expressions is crucial to the layers of emotion she means to communicate. (Moss’ smile almost never means she’s happy.) She finds opportunities to work this way here and there in Queen of Earth, but mostly she’s fed lines and asked to deliver them in close-up.
Queen of Earth does include one standout sequence for both Moss and Waterston. One of Catherine and Virginia’s late-night conversations opens with a shot of a ceiling fan, whose rotating blades cause the light to have a dismal strobe effect across the room. Perry cuts to a shot of Virginia, who is listening to Catherine recount her recent woes, and the cinematography (by Sean Price Williams) lends her visage a throbbing menace. When Virginia responds with her own personal tale, the camera shifts to Catherine, who adopts a mask of indifference. The two actresses do their best work in the entire movie in these moments – largely because they’re both silent.