Monday, March 02, 2015

Faults: a Bargain Basement Deprogrammer in Over his Head

They do not use an initial article. Claire’s cult merely refers to itself as “Faults.” “From a fault comes a change” they like to say—and they seem to think a big apocalyptic one is coming. That is why they do not have time for children, or “parasites” as they call them. Okay, that sounds a little creepy, but it still isn’t as nuts as Xenu and the thetan madness. Her parents will hire a disgraced cult expert to deprogram her, but nothing will go according to his plan in Riley Stearns’ Faults (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Ansel Roth was once a bestselling cult investigator with his own television show, but a case that went sour cost him just about everything. He now lives a hand-to-mouth existence giving seminars in third-rate hotels, where he transparently hawks his self-published follow-up book, to pay back Terry, his loan shark-ish manager, who fronted the printing costs. Who would attend his speaking engagements? The truly desperate, like Claire’s parents, Paul and Evelyn.

Although Roth had essentially quit the de-programming business, he agrees to help the couple, largely due to the motivation supplied by his manager’s enforcer. Yet, as soon as he abducts the young woman and commences the process, strange complications start to arise. Claire is unusually calm and pre-possessed, answering his questions without a lot of rhetorical contortions. On the other hand, her parents start to acting in suspicious ways that might suggest a history of emotional and perhaps even sexual abuse. Nevertheless, Roth is under pressure to get this deal done, so he can pay off his overdue debt.

Given the potentially lurid nature of its subject matter, it is rather impressive how low-key and subtle Stearns’ treatment is. He takes his time establishing Roth’s bitter and nebbish character through some wickedly droll black comedy. The stakes are considerable throughout the chess game he plays with Claire (played by Stearns’ real life wife, Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but when things take a macabre turn, it is more amusing than alarming. Granted, we have seen many variations on the film’s big twist before, but the smaller helper-twists are quite clever.

It is shame award season never seriously considers genre films, because Leland Orser’s lead performance merits that sort of attention, just like the dynamite Nick Damici in Late Phases. He masterfully alternates between comedy and tragedy, without breaking stride. He and Winstead crackle together in their sparring sessions. Lance Reddick (the hotel manager in John Wick) is also all kinds of hardnosed as Terry’s muscle, Mick, while John Gries chews plenty of scenery as his weird boss.

There are several spots in the third act Stearns could have played up much bigger, but that matter-of-factness makes the film quickly appreciate in viewers’ consciousness, in retrospect. Look, sometimes less really is more. In fact, Faults is a cool example of how a highly effective genre hybrid can be whipped up on a limited budget. Aside from maybe one sequence, the whole thing could have been shot in a low-rent motor lodge. The finished product is a great showcase for Stearns and his consistently strong ensemble of character actors. Highly recommended, Faults opens this Friday (3/6) in New York, at the Cinema Village.