“What did you lose?”
There’s an inherent paradox to the universally held idea of cults being destructive. So quick to deem what occurs within them unnatural—namely a leader using his charisma to indoctrinate the weak into a “family” that understands them—we forget to acknowledge how much of our own lives follow the same pattern. As children we look up to our parents, grandparents, role models, etc. As adults we seek validation from bosses, peers, and spouses, measuring our success on a scale built upon what a public we hold as “right” accepts. Whether it the laws of a God, a government, a dictator, or the voice inside our mind, we blindly swear allegiance to a way of life people probably saw as damaging centuries ago like we see cult programming today. Who’s to say we know what’s best?
Just because society at large is exponentially bigger than any organization on the ground ever could be doesn’t automatically make it sane. Just because the majority of our species holds certain truths to be unequivocal doesn’t mean the definition of sane should be bestowed upon them rather than outsiders refusing to conform. To dismiss these outliers sight unseen is to be no better than those we’ve lost and wish to bring back into the fold. And herein lies the impossibility of knowing exactly how a confrontation with the other side will turn out. Why wouldn’t a situation meant to deprogram a sheep that’s drifted from the flock find an opportunity to turn the tables? If the way of life we fear was able to appeal to our “victim”, who’s to say it won’t also appeal to us?
These are the themes writer/director Riley Stearns utilizes in his feature length debut Faults. What should be a cut-and-dry modern exorcism, if you’ll allow the crass metaphor, the events depicted onscreen evolve along a very scary path. Not because Stearns diverts the suspense aspects into horror, but because the course he follows makes absolute sense. Our world is constructed upon appearances and the image we all project becomes a carefully manufactured mask we eventually find ourselves forgetting exists. It only takes a simple reminder to place us in the crosshairs of the most important decision of our lives: whether to continue on that path because it is who we were meant to be or to acknowledge its deceit and distance ourselves from it. For Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the fragile girl her parents knew is no more.
This is why they (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) hire Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), the foremost authority on brainwashing and mind control within cults. He had success once—before a fatal complication—so he becomes their last chance to get Claire back. Orchestrating a kidnapping to sequester the girl from her group, Roth takes the plunge to return to the same situation that ultimately ruined his career. Visibly broken by the tragic circumstances of his last “intervention”—depicted gloriously by Orser’s captivating performance and Stearns’ darkly comic script—he has no choice but to try again. With his manager’s (Jon Gries‘ Terry) enforcer (Lance Reddick‘s Mick) in pursuit for a large sum of money owed, helping Claire provides the potential for a clean slate financially and emotionally. Unfortunately nothing proves to be as it seems.
Stearns’ inspirations are visible in the best way possible. Not as homage per se, but you can definitely tell each is represented with affection. Whether the volatility brewing beneath the surface of what was obviously once a calm demeanor in Ansel a la Punch-Drunk Love; the warped spatial, sexual, and psychological underpinnings of a complex situation we are left in the dark about similar to the brilliant Dogtooth; or the bitingly comic air slicing through a dramatic dynamic as the Coen Brothers supply, Faults takes the most striking parts of great work and makes them its own. Throw a bit of what Mike Cahill, Brit Marling, and Zal Batmanglij have been doing these past years and you have yet another refreshing cinematic voice breaking into a landscape drowning under the weight of redundant blockbusters.
I could see Faults earning success on the stage with its escalating relationship between Ansel and Claire providing a riveting centerpiece of intriguing reversals. We know that he is putting on an act—the nice guy persona only looking to help in order to reach a payday and get back on track professionally. But to accept she might also be playing angles isn’t as apparent. She hopes to explain to her parents that her happiness is nothing to fear and what she becomes while in their presence tells us the reason to be afraid might come from them. We see it at the exact same moment Ansel does, the acknowledgement that certainties we took for granted are far from set in stone. What follows may not be wholly surprising, but it is impeccably orchestrated.
A few scenes towards the end will linger upon its completion—especially one shoving Orser down the rabbit hole he so desperately believed could never coax him in—but they stem from their performances. Control and power play a very important role in everything that unfolds, changing hands constantly from the world bearing down on Ansel to his domineering Claire and beyond. The weak become strong, the invincible made of glass. And it’s a subtle yet profound transition when it happens with Orser’s career defining turn leading the way. In the end all that we hold as real has been afforded its position by man: the loudest voice at the exact right time. While it may be working for us now, it may not continue for long. We’re always one ambitious and hungry voice away from resetting “normal”.