When you first see Catherine, she’s looking upward, her teary, blotchy face filling the frame. She’s suffering, although she doesn’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of convincing the guy who’s mostly off-camera. The funny thing is that with her wet raccoon eyes and red nose, Catherine — a sensational Elisabeth Moss — also looks like a sad clown.
By the time Catherine exits Queen of Earth, her frown has turned upside down and a grimace of abject misery has transformed into a vision of manic happiness. That it’s unclear which face is scarier, more unnerving, is in keeping with director Alex Ross Perry’s gift for destabilization, for setting a mood only to violently upend it with cutting looks, dissonant musical chords and off-kilter camera angles.
The wellspring for Catherine’s opening waterworks is twofold: Her beloved father has recently died, and her lover, James (Kentucker Audley, all smiles and spinelessness), is now leaving her for another woman. Queen of Earth largely focuses on Catherine during a summer visit with her ostensible best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston), who’s been given the keys to a country retreat belonging to relatives. And while Catherine may be ready to lick her wounds, she doesn’t stand a chance, given how deeply Virginia jabs her fingers in them.
Perched comfortably between art-house and mainstream filmmaking idioms, Perry does a great deal with his hybrid visual style, emotional palette, restricted location and a minimal cast that includes a very good Patrick Fugit as Virginia’s neighbor. The story folds in several time frames, including the days of Catherine’s visit that are announced on screen in red, elegant typeface.
There are times in Queen of Earth when Perry, who’s content to skim the surface rather than break it, comes across like an exceptionally gifted student trying his hand at art-cinema pastiche. Waterston, a Modigliani in motion and often in black, easily holds your attention, but it is Moss, with her intimate expressivity, who annihilates you from first tear to last crushing laugh.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley.
Writer-director: Alex Ross Perry.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 90 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower.