REVIEW: Anyone who was lucky enough to catch director Riley Stearns' short film, THE CUB, can understand why – as a festival attending critic – I was so keen to catch up with his feature-debut. A wily mix of genres, FAULTS is an intriguing debut for a director who seems primed for indie success and beyond.
The idea of cults – doomsday or otherwise – has intrigued audiences for decades. Movies like MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and THE SACRAMENT attempted to give us an insiders look and explore how someone's defences could be systematically broken-down to the point that they'd fall for a cult's message hook, line, and sinker. FAULTS does something a little different as we never actually get a look at the cult, but rather are put in the shoes of a cynical de-programmer who tries to rebuild his subject's free-will, with the catch being that in order to build her back up he has to tear her down in a way that's extremely dangerous.
The movie opens with Leland Orser's formerly famous cult-expert reduced to doing seminars in dingy motels and scamming diners for free meals. At one of his seminars, he's brutalized by the brother of a girl he deprogrammed, an episode which led to her suicide. While this all sounds pretty grim, it's interesting that for much of its running time, FAULTS is almost a comedy, with Orser's nebbish quality being milked for laughs. However, this proves to be deceptive with Stearns (who also wrote the script) pulling the rug out from under us later in the film.
For the most part, FAULTS is a two-hander, with Orser giving the performance of his career as the downtrodden deprogrammer. Throughout FAULTS I was reminded of James Woods' part as a tough-guy deprogrammer in the little-seen SPLIT IMAGE, but Orser is more convincing as a guy who radiates intelligence to the extent that he knows that by playing with someone's free will he's putting them in grave danger.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Stearns' partner) plays his unwilling subject, and as always she's excellent. Winstead excels in indie roles, and the part was probably tailor-made for her and it shows. While Orser probably has the showier or the two roles, Winstead's part is arguably trickier, with her having to walk a fine line between playing an unwitting victim and possibly something more sinister throughout her lengthy exchanges with Orser. With a good 70% of the movie being confined to a single motel room, it's impressive how much mileage Stearns is able to get out of the film visually, opting to shoot in scope 2:35:1, which is unusual for such an intimate film. He's managed to make a very dynamic film, with some interesting shots, and terrific sound design giving this a polished feel that makes it seem like it cost a lot more than it probably did.
While Orser and Winstead are alone for much of the running time, FAULTS also has a few nice supporting parts, including Beth Grant and the underrated Chris Ellis as Winstead's parents. Jon Gries also pops up to steal a few scenes as Orser's disgruntled agent, with THE WIRE's Lance Reddick as his imposing henchman.
Maybe the only way FAULTS goes a little wrong is by one twist too many in the unexpected conclusion, but for the most part this is a terrific debut for Stearns, and a really intriguing piece of work. I'd hesitate to call this straight-up horror, but the elements are certainly there if you have the patience to wait for them. FAULTS really is an early gem from this year's crop at the Fantasia Film Festival, and hopefully it'll find an audience once it gets released.