Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” is a bizarre, chilling, mesmerizing portrait of one woman’s (played by “Mad Men’s” Elizabeth Moss) psychological breakdown and the degrading effect said breakdown has on her relationship with a lifelong friend.
In the wake of her father’s suicide and dumping by her boyfriend, Catherine (Moss) goes to a lake house with her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterson) for a week of solace and recovery. And well, that’s pretty much it. The peculiar thing about “Queen of Earth” is that not a lot “happens:” the two do a lot of sitting and lying around. Catherine paints Virginia’s portrait, they go walking in the woods. They argue, they connect, a meddling patronizing neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit) hangs around. At the same time, there’s a feeling of dread and uneasiness the viewer can’t shake. This is mostly due to Keegan DeWitt’s haunting instrumental score, which is soothing yet eerie, peaceful yet distressing-- flaring up at particular moments like a horror movie soundtrack. In addition, cinematographer Sean Price Williams primarily uses lengthy shots and slow pans and zoom in’s, giving the film a heightened, almost slow motion, dreamy reality. Just about everything that happens in “Queen of Earth” is mundane and ordinary but the tone is creepy and chaotic.
Through the creepy score, dreamy cinematography and elegant direction, Perry brings the deeply internalized feelings of panic, anxiety, alienation, sadness and concern associated with Catherine’s break down to the surface with unnerving, disturbing energy. In this regard “Queen of Earth” is a horror movie but it’s not about ghosts, murders or even trippy visions. It’s a horror movie about depression, a much more frightening and ominous entity because it’s a real condition thousands of people suffer from.
What is supposed to be a week of relaxation turns into one of discomfort and tension. Catherine gets progressively worse as the days count down. The serenity and seclusion of the lake house, while initially welcoming, becomes suffocating. It’s amazing that a place so beautiful and tranquil (with its crystal clear lake water and a lush forest surrounding with sunlight peaking through the tree’s) could be the setting for such an intense psychological breakdown. Perry crafts one uncomfortable, nail-biting scene after another. Catherine’s demeanor becomes more hostile and anxious; she hardly sleeps, has mood swings and complains about her face aching (even though nothing physical is wrong with her). It’s like the walls of her psyche are closing in on her. The movie is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic paranoid thriller “Repulsion” (another movie in which a woman suffers from psychosis) sans the nightmarish hallucinations.
We also see the gradual decay of her friendship with Virginia. At first the two share a few warm and intimate moments; there’s a great scene (shot in a single take close up, the camera moving back and forth between their faces) where they open up to each other about past romantic relationships that gives us a great sense of their closeness and trust. However, due to Catherine’s increasing hostility, it gets to a point where they act like strangers-- saying few words and awkwardly avoiding each other. There’s a beautiful shot near the end of the film in which Virginia lies on a couch in the living room reading her magazine while Catherine stands outside a window (that’s slightly above than her) looking in. Virginia looks up from her magazine but the two never make eye contact, emphasizing the emotional and psychological distance growing between them.
It also helps that Perry found two incredibly talented rising actresses. Moss is phenomenal-- playing Catherine with a perfect blend of sympathy and menace, not going overboard with the craziness. We experience the immense internal suffering she’s going through right along with her. When she rubs her face in pain we can’t help but rub our faces too. Often times her pained facial expressions say more than any line of dialogue. At the same time, she has clearly snapped and you wait (on edge) for her to do something drastic—either inflicting pain on herself or someone else. At one point, after encountering a random man in the backyard one night, she says to him, with a chilling smile: “I could murder you right now and no one would ever know.” Perhaps best of all, Moss doesn’t paint Catherine entirely as a victim. In flashbacks to last year’s trip to the lake house, she’s depicted as selfish and inconsiderate, the result of living a privileged comfortable life and depending on others (her father and boyfriends) to be taken care of. Overall, Catherine is a tragic, flawed, multifaceted heroine.
Waterson gives a wonderfully restrained, nuanced performance as someone witnessing her best friend’s horrifying descent into madness. Virginia has an obligation to stay strong and supportive (especially considering she went through her own bout of depression) but as Catherine’s condition worsens it becomes difficult for Virginia to conceal own her growing frustration and sadness.
On the whole, “Queen of Earth” is a beautiful, remarkable film showing just how terrifying depression can be for both the person who is depressed and the friends/ family members affected by it second hand.