FAULTS: A Sly, Effective Thriller – Streaming Movie Review
I have two words for you: Leland Orser. Who is Leland Orser? Chances are you already know. He’s one of those that guys. An actor who has popped up dozens of times in small to medium roles in films you love. The two roles I associate with him the most are from Se7en where he played “Crazed Man in Massage Parlor,” aka the guy with the knife strap-on, and Saving Private Ryan where he had another truly memorable scene as the shell-shocked pilot of a plane that crashed after it was overloaded with armor. In Faults, he turns in a truly excellent lead performance as Ansel, a cult expert who is asked to rescue a woman from a cult called Faults. Her parents have tried everything to get their daughter back and nothing has worked. It seems their last resort is to hire Ansel to essentially kidnap their daughter and spend five days in a motel trying to deprogram her.
The film opens with a brilliant scene that takes place all in one continuous shot as Ansel is confronted by a restaurant manager for trying to pay for a meal with an already used hotel meal voucher. Ansel is arrogant, caustic, and plainly desperate. It’s clear from this scene and others that Ansel has fallen on hard times and is no longer the man he once believed himself to be. He is at this particular hotel to give a talk on cults, but his lecture is sparsely attended and then violently interrupted by a man with a grudge against Ansel. After the lecture a couple approaches him and asks for help with their daughter Claire.
The majority of the film takes place in a motel room as Ansel talks with Claire about her cult experience, what has drawn her to it, and why she refuses to return home to her parents. The more they talk and get to know each other, the more Ansel tries to convince Claire that she shouldn’t stay with Faults, the more their relationship develops and the film becomes a parable about power dynamics, vulnerability, and also deception.
In addition to Leland Orser, this film is filled with wonderful performances. Claire is played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who also produced the film. Winstead has been in films like The Spectacular Now and Scott Pilgrim vs The World. In Faults she is vulnerable as you would expect of a cult member, but there is also a strength and resolve to her performance that is at times very arresting. Her parents are played by Chris Ellis and Beth Grant, also prolific character actors that you’ve seen a bunch in other films (my favorites are Apollo 13 for Ellis and Speed for Grant). Also in the film are Lance Reddick, an alum from The Wire, and Jon Gries, you know him as Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite among other things. By my count that’s five amazing character actors and one rising star. Not too shabby for a first time writing and directing effort by Riley Stearns.
Stearns has crafted a smart, efficient thriller here. It’s the kind of film that feels off kilter the whole time. It starts with this bizarrely funny scene in the restaurant and then progresses more and more into psychological thriller territory. The cinematography plays a huge role here, especially as we get into the motel and the films starts to take some very dark turns. Michael Ragen, the cinematographer, and Stearns are both names to watch. They use the confined space of the motel room to their advantage. As the tension ratchets up the camera starts to push in more and more on our characters, intensifying the claustrophobia. There are also a couple really sly framing moments later in the film that were absolutely brilliant. I don’t want to spoil them here, but one had me completely disoriented at a key moment (in a good way) and the other chilled me to the bone. The editor of the film, Sarah Beth Shapiro also deserves some attention here. There’s some very smart cutting going on that not only helps with the tension, but also the sense of disorientation I felt in some key places.
If I have to fault Faults with anything, it’s with the script. There are some smart, compelling ideas at play here, but in a way this almost works against the film. It’s tough to get into without discussing the last third of the film, but I would say that there are some key moments late in the film that are earned in a technical sense, but don’t necessarily feel earned. I wouldn’t call it too easy, but maybe too fast. In a film that clocks in at just under 90 minutes, I wish there had been a scene or two that had more fully fleshed out some of those key moments.
Faults premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2014. It’s now streaming on Netflix and is available for rent and purchase via iTunes and other platforms. The iTunes purchase also includes a director and cast commentary, which may make this an essential purchase for me. I’d put it up there with one of my favorite films of the year so far.