FAULTS feels like something isn’t quite right. Maybe it’s the claustrophobic camera that’s ominously static and tight, unwilling to pull back and show what’s happening just out of eyesight. Maybe it’s the dark subject matter – cult psychology that convinces people to distance themselves from their family. Or maybe it’s that the level of desperation in the main character, Ansel, is so obvious that we are just waiting for his masquerade of confidence to come crashing down around him. Whatever the reason(s), FAULTS oozes tension from start to finish.
Thanks to a bunch of massively underrated, underexposed actors who are given the meaty screen time they deserve to shine, Stearns makes a flawless debut as writer-director, showcasing his ability to shock even where you may have guessed the twists. The Coen brothers-esq characterisation is so captivating that you almost feel you’re being indoctrinated into some sort of cult yourself. His real-life wife Mary-Elizabeth Winston plays Claire, a young woman who’s allegedly been brainwashed by the cult ‘Faults’ according to her worried parents. They seek out Ansel (Leland Orser), a broke has-been ‘expert’ on cult following and the damage they do to families, accosting him at one of his talks. Unable to resist the prospect of money, he enters into a deal to try to coax Claire back from the mysterious world she is so devoted to.
At the root of it all is a sinister look at manipulation and power play, where the tools we use to gain the upper hand – sexuality, insinuation, indication, exaggeration, bold assertions with nothing behind them – are expertly juggled until the suspense of who is going to win the next round almost sends us over the edge. And it all happens, suffocatingly, in a couple of little nondescript motel box rooms.
The eerie stillness, the weighted tone, as Ansel slinks through the American landscape of motorways, breakfast houses and motels, almost hunchbacked in his low opinion of himself, at times exploding in bursts of frustration at how bleak the outlook is (and bleak it is, what with his threatening agent on his case, gangster-like, for the return of his money for releasing a book that no one read), arouses a compelling atmosphere. Everything we see is intimately within the character’s periphery, helping to imply that there are always things going on beyond his knowledge and control. The truth is always slightly smoke screened, or slightly twisted, to fit someone’s agenda.
Simply, FAULTS is the story of an extreme intervention featuring four characters who are totally at odds and all in it for different reasons – Ansel for the money, Claire because her Faults God must have willed it, and her parents to get their ‘baby’ back. Thanks to fearless performances, the results are darkly humorous, disturbingly convincing, and above all, manipulative. When one character asks: ‘doesn’t it feel good just to listen instead of thinking?’, it is like being awoken from hypnosis, and you realise how easily Stearns has pulled us under.
The Final Word: Genuinely Faultless
Read Holly’s original review for ScreenRelish here.