No one likes breakups — the desperate bargaining, the venomous insults, the unsettlingly quiet moments in between the extreme emotions can be draining for both parties. Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth begins with the end of one such relationship.
With an assist from cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ claustrophobic camera work, Perry’s psychological drama opens with a shot of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), a distraught woman who recently lost her father, as she’s being dumped by her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley). As James uses psychobabble to twist the knife and deflect attention from his own disloyalty, the camera focuses on Catherine, sniffling while her smudging eye makeup begins to resemble Welcome to My Nightmare-era Alice Cooper, a guise that, judging by the third act of the film, is somewhat fitting. The camera, only briefly cutting away to an apathetic James, mires the viewer in her humiliation. Catherine’s desperation, frustration, and sadness culminate into an abrupt exclamation that ends the scene.
To serve as a rehabilitating distraction from her nerve-fraying depression, Catherine retreats with her friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) to a secluded lake house that belongs to Ginny’s parents. Alternating between their current vacation and one from the previous year, we see how both women handle the highs and lows in their respective lives. In the previous year, Catherine brought James to the yearly getaway spot, while Ginny’s barely muted irritation with singledom was only enhanced by her friend’s condescending joy. One year later, the tables have turned, and Ginny is in the midst of a blossoming relationship that threatens to unyoke the women’s friendship while serving as a crippling reminder to Catherine of her own loneliness.
However good their intentions may have been, the retreat seems to only further the divide between Ginny and Catherine. When Catherine isn’t painting, sauntering around the house, or attempting to ignore her friend’s ecstasy in the next room, she is talking on the phone to someone, presumably her ex. Furthermore, Ginny’s attempts to comfort her depressed friend are rebuffed in an exchange that seems to stress that maybe Catherine is merely having a masturbatory self-pity party. “Things aren’t so bad right now though,” Ginny offers weakly. “No, you’re absolutely right, Virginia. They’re worse. They’re much, much worse.”
As her attempts become more and more in vain, Ginny begins to put in the bare minimum to help her exhaustingly sad friend, ultimately choosing to focus on her casual relationship with the boy next door, Rich (Patrick Fugit). As the duo’s already questionable friendship erodes and her isolation builds, Catherine steadily becomes more unhinged by the day, in often frightful ways.
One would typically assume this is when things would get overtly violent, but Perry’s film, with its minimal locations and small cast, is more like a play focused on the conversations between two characters lost in their own egos. Catherine, a self-defined good person, is constantly victimized by her circumstances, while Ginny sees herself as an independent warrior battling a constant stream of weaker, unenlightened enemies. Even though Catherine’s histrionics are more glaring to the casual observer, Ginny’s icy nature is just as grandiose.
In one of the film’s most dialogue-heavy sequences between the two friends, Catherine sadly recounts the time she lost a love while Ginny angrily details the time she left a clingy partner. More arresting than Catherine’s desperate soliloquy or Ginny’s callous monologue is that neither woman seems concerned with the other’s revelations, if they even listened in the first place. The scene perfectly illustrates each woman’s self-importance and complicity in their own personal hells.
While the majority of the film is rooted in subtext and suggestion, it does veer off into a couple cut-and-dried horror scenes that threaten to derail things: Even though it is meant to serve as an example of Catherine’s tormented mind, a party scene lays on the terror a bit too thick. Thankfully, it doesn’t detract from the film’s overall quality.
Queen of Earth is more intent on exposing the frightful underbelly of toxic relationships and the damaging cycle of depression while skewering our culture of self-aggrandizement. The desperate, quiet scenes are reminiscent of John Cassavete’s drama, A Woman Under the Influence, while Keegan DeWitt’s unsettling soundtrack and the film’s consuming claustrophobia, a la Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and the foreboding madness, like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, give the film the teeth of horror. Thankfully, Queen of Earth eschews the naked lunacy of boiling bunnies and swinging axes, preferring to derive it’s visceral horror from its characters who constantly wound each other with invective.