Queen of Earth is the scariest movie of the summer
Alex Ross Perry's claustrophobic drama follows Elisabeth Moss through a bottomless downward spiral
The scariest movie I've seen this year is Alex Ross Perry's strange, mesmerizing Queen of Earth. Essentially a two-hander, Queen of Earth follows Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Ginny (Katherine Waterston) as they spend a week at a cabin owned by Ginny's wealthy parents. In flashbacks, we see that they took the same trip a year earlier, though Catherine brought a boyfriend. This year, the boyfriend is gone, and Catherine is struggling. Some of her problems are understandable: grief over the end of her relationship and the death of her father. Others are stranger — like, say, her complaints that her bones are constantly grinding under her skin.
Perry often shoots his actresses in close-up, but in Queen of Earth, the effect doesn't lead to intimacy — it leads to claustrophobia. The film begins with a showstopper of a scene in which Catherine sobs and snarls her way through a nasty breakup. (When I first saw the film at BAM Cinemafest in June, I was convinced there was something wrong with the sound mix. When I saw it again, I realized the scene was supposed to be that abrasive and ear-splitting.)
After that bleak opener, Catherine and Ginny arrive at the cabin, and basically don't leave it, allowing the the film to cultivate a constant, creeping dread. Queen of Earth is scary because it doesn't give you the comfort of knowing what the rules are. The cabin is all angles, with a wide-open floor plan making actual privacy a virtual impossibility. We don't even really know why Catherine and Ginny are friends; they don't particularly seem to like or trust each other (though they share a low-key rapport that hints at a relationship spread over many years). And while time clearly progresses in the film — each passing day is noted with a title card akin to the ones in The Shining, and the parallel can't be unintentional — the days themselves are poisonously languorous. Queen of Earth hops madly from scene to scene, with little indication of how many hours have passed between, or what the characters have been doing in the interim.
Most of all, it's impossible to pin down what's actually going on in either character's head. Though they spend much of their time openly hashing over their thoughts and problems, Catherine and Ginny remain unknowable; though something is clearly wrong, it's unclear just how bad things could get, or how dire the consequences would be if the prevailing passive-aggression curdled into aggression. As Ginny, Waterston keeps her cards close to her chest, vacillating between concern, callousness, and menace. As Catherine, Moss proves herself once again to be one of this generation's truly brilliant actresses, reaching emotional depths that evoke both pity and terror.
After a couple of promising indie features, Alex Ross Perry broke out with last year's terrific Listen Up Philip, a comedy so black it often tipped into drama. The most satisfying arc in Listen Up Philip belonged to Ashley, also played by Elisabeth Moss, who mourned her sudden breakup from the title character in all the usual ways — flirting with a sleazy stranger at a bar, grabbing lunch with an old flame, adopting a cat — before recovering her sense of agency and moving on.
Queen of Earth's Catherine is a totally different character than Listen Up Philip's Ashley, but the films are particularly fascinating in tandem. (Queen of Earth even includes an easter egg that implies, meaningfully or not, that the two movies take place in the same universe.) Listen Up Philip follows a woman who overcomes the trauma of a breakup to become a stronger, more fulfilled version of herself; Queen of Earth follows a woman whose breakup is the inciting incident for a swift and unsettling mental deterioration.
"I think there comes a point where it becomes your own responsibility to remove yourself from the situation that is clearly making you unhappy," Elisabeth Moss said in an interview with The Week pegged to Listen Up Philip. But Queen of Earth implies a darker moral than that. "You can get out of someone else's cycle." reflects Ginny. "But you can't get out of your own."
Queen of Earth opens in select theaters on Friday. It is also available for rental on video-on-demand right now.