Control, and lack thereof, is at the black heart of Faults, the twisted and terrific directorial debut of Riley Stearns (some may recognize him for short film The Cub). Who claims to have control, who says they want it and who actually wields it are distinct questions the film raises and, over the course of a taut 89 minutes, suggests answers that are both appalling and somewhat amusing.
Arriving at the heels of some other great cult films – including Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which featured a stunning debut performance by Elizabeth Olsen – Faults sets itself apart by crafting two arrestingly good leads.
In one corner, there’s Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), a once-acclaimed expert on cults and mind control who is a step away from living out of his car, having lost his TV show, marriage and financial security in quick succession. He’s the kind of Coen-esque protagonist who’s always getting punched in the face, a sad-sack sleazebag who you simultaneously root for and want to watch fall flat, and Orser plays him to a tee, nailing Ansel’s hapless misery and hard-worn honor. The actor, long relegated to thankless bit parts, is sensational from Faults‘ very first scene, a standout in which Ansel tenaciously tries to con a canny diner manager into giving him a free meal.
In the other corner is Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who, according to her parents (Chris Ellis, all macho-man maneuvering, and Beth Grant, eerily silent), has come under the control of a mysterious group called Faults (the name refers to both psychological and geographic locations where pressure builds until an eruption is unavoidable). Alternately icy, vulnerable and authoritative, Claire is an absolute enigma, a puzzle-box hiding dark and disturbing secrets.
Winstead, best known as the nerd’s dream girl in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the unmoored alcoholic in Smashed, delivers a performance vastly different from either of those but nevertheless dazzling. That she’s the most inviting and intriguing aspect of Faults perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – Stearns, who also penned the script, is Winstead’s off-screen husband and plays to her many strengths.
Downtrodden, cash-strapped and with a disgruntled agent (Jon Gries) and imposing enforcer (Lance Reddick) demanding what’s due, Ansel agrees to a five-day “deprogramming” session in which he’ll kidnap Claire and, inside a seedy motel room, attempt to break the cult’s grip on her mind. Needless to say, all does not go as planned.
The beauty of Stearns’ film is in its unpredictability, from a script that subverts expectations to performers who, even while achieving a delicate consonance with one another, aren’t afraid to go big and weird with their portrayals. Inside that hotel room, as Ansel and Claire butt heads and wrestle for control of each other’s minds, someone is being converted, but from and into what is as maddeningly unclear as it is mesmerizing to watch.
To say much more about Faults‘ storyline would be to rob viewers of a delightful, little roller-coaster ride that zigs when you think it will zag and yields a deliciously creepy payoff. Stearns’ script is near-masterful in its establishing of characters and understanding of what makes them tick, from Ansel’s lugubrious self-loathing to Claire’s father’s dangerously dominant personality. One scene late in the game finds Ansel and Claire face-to-face in a locked bathroom with one of them finally laying bare their insecurities. It’s brilliantly written, tightening the screws to unbearable levels in accordance with every passing frame, until the door finally opens and, blue in the face, you can finally take a breath.
As a meditation on free will, Faults also fascinates. Instead of fully exploring the eerie authority of the cult leader, callously commanding subservient members to do their bidding or even march to their own deaths, the film peers into the just-as-frighteningly blank mind of the disciple, desperately starving for instruction in all areas of life. Why do these people so willingly surrender control, handing over the keys to their destinies as if simply passing the butter at dinner? What in their lives could have transpired to lead them to believe that they lack the abilities to decide their own futures? Faults is impressive on a number of fronts, but its most nifty achievement may be letting us peer into that frame of mind and forcing us to acknowledge that such disciples’ desires are much more relatable than we’d ever like to admit.
Faults is a darkly funny and often unsettling study in psychological control, a terrific vehicle for two talented performers and a remarkably assured debut for writer-director Riley Stearns.