Ansel Roth, Beth Grant, brainwashing, character dramas, Chris Ellis, cinema, cult leaders, cults, dark comedies, deprogrammers, dramas, dysfunctional family, fall from grace, Faults, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Heather McIntosh, hotel rooms, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick, Leland Orser, Leonard Earl Howze, living in a hotel, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Ragen, Movies, Nicholas Tucci, parent-child relationships, Riley Stearns, Sarah Beth Shapiro, surreal, The Cub, washed-up, worried parents, writer-director
Cinema has a long, proud tradition of anti-heroes, although few are quite as memorable (or reprehensible) as Ansel Roth (Leland Orser). When we first meet Ansel, the de facto protagonist of writer-director Riley Stearns’ incredible Faults (2014), he’s trying to use a previously used voucher to scam a free breakfast from a hotel’s in-house restaurant. The confrontation turns physical after Ansel refuses to leave, eating ketchup packets with a fork while the restaurant manager and waiter attempt to wrestle him to the ground. The capper to the whole fiasco? Turns out Ansel pulled the voucher out of the trash in the first place. The cost of the meal that he refused to pay? $4.75. That, my friends, is conviction.
Ansel is a scruffy rat, a washed-up, defeated con artist who no longer believes in the bullshit he peddles but doesn’t really have a lot of options, at this point in time. Shuffling from one hotel conference room to the next, he discusses cult deprogramming to tiny groups of largely disinterested people, all while trying to sell a book that no one wants. Despite having a former best-selling book and television show, a professional fall from grace and ensuing divorce have left Ansel a broken, wretched schlub, trading on former glories that are in danger of being completely forgotten, leaving his entire existence in question.
After a particularly disastrous “seminar,” Ansel is approached by Paul (Chris Ellis) and Evelyn (Beth Grant), a couple of salt-of-the-earth types who want the former deprogrammer’s help in rescuing their beloved daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), from the clutches of a cult. Despite initially blowing them off, Ansel is forced to change his tune after his publisher, Terry (Jon Gries), drops him as a client and sends the menacing Mick (Lance Reddick) to collect what Ansel owes for his latest flop of a book. Ansel agrees to “kidnap” and deprogram Claire, undoing the cult’s brainwashing and giving the couple back their daughter…all for an incredibly steep price, of course.
Ansel and his lunk-headed partners snatch Claire off the street and spirit her away to a motel room, where Ansel plans to spend the next five days deprogramming her. While Claire, at first, seems more than a little shell-shocked, in no time at all, she’s engaging in a philosophical back-and-forth about her life, her involvement with the cult and, to a great extent, the abject worthlessness of Ansel’s own existence. Things really get interesting when Ansel reveals that Claire’s parents are staying in the adjoining room.
As Paul’s aggressive, “my way or the highway” attitude threatens to wreck Ansel’s progress (along with giving us plenty of good reasons for Claire’s initial departure), Terry and Mick continue to hover in the background, promising to take the grubby deprogrammer apart and put him together backward if they don’t get their promised cash. Will Ansel be able to keep his own wreck of a life together long enough to save Claire or will it all end up being the straw that broke the camel’s back?
After gaining some measure of notice with the clever “raised by wolves” short The Cub (2013), Stearns really kicks down the door and blowtorches the joint with his debut full-length, Faults. As with John Maclean’s similarly excellent Slow West (2015), Stearns’ film is a perfect synthesis of form, theme, performance and technique, each element blending into and leading into the next like Ouroboros eating its tail. The script is tight, taut and full of exceptional dialogue, giving the film the feel of a really good stage play, a feeling reinforced by the tendency to confine the action to small, contained locations (the motel room, the van, Ansel’s car). Faults is the kind of film that can hold an audience rapt with nothing more than two characters talking, a definitively old-fashioned notion in this era of sensory overload.
Cinematographer Michael Ragen shoots some incredibly beautiful, evocative images, doubly impressive when one considers that Faults is his full-length debut, as well, after a series of shorts and music videos. Ragen was also responsible for shooting The Cub, so here’s to hoping that his relationship with Stearns continues to bear such impressive fruit. Ragen’s often dreamlike images are perfectly complimented by Heather McIntosh’s whimsical score: the score helps to leaven the film’s darker edges and accentuates the more absurd comedy elements quite nicely. Faults looks and sounds consistently great, making it one of the more attractive films to come down the pike this year.
Towering over everything like a pair of Titans, however, are the astounding performances by Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Despite how great the script and production is, despite the raft of solid supporting performances (Ellis and Grant are particularly good as Claire’s parents) and the tight sense of economy, Faults is, at its heart, a two character study and those two characters are Ansel Roth and Claire, Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. If there are any cracks in this foundation, any failure on the part of the principals to take us “all the way,” than Faults would become just a curiosity, a kindred spirit to Jane Campion’s odd Holy Smoke (1999). Luckily for us all, Orser and Winstead turn in two of the very best performances of the entire year.
Orser, a character actor whose career encompasses everything from walk-ons in The Golden Girls and Se7en (1995) (he was the male half of the “lust” setpiece) to more substantial roles in films like Alien: Resurrection (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise, is an absolutely mesmerizing presence here, demanding our attention like an immutable black hole. There’s no notion of separation between actor and character, here: no zippers or seams in this particular “costume.” Rather, we get a complete portrait of an impossibly fractured, miserable man, a loathsomely smooth-talking snake-oil salesman who believes in nothing whatsoever, including his own bullshit. From that opening introduction in the restaurant all the way to Ansel’s shocking “evolution,” there’s not one missed note or misstep in Orser’s performance. I fully expect him to be snubbed come awards’ season but know this: he absolutely deserves to be represented when they announce the short-list for Best Actor in a Leading Role, hands-down.
Winstead, who first came to prominence via performances in genre pictures like The Ring 2 (2005), Final Destination 3 (2006), Black Christmas (2006), Death Proof (2007) and The Thing remake (2011), is nothing short of a revelation here, giving us what surely must be the trickiest, most subtle performance of her entire career. The co-mingled sense of naive innocence and steely determination is a heady one and watching Claire slowly assume control of the whole messy situation is one of the greatest cinematic pleasures I’ve experienced in some time. Winstead is completely invested in the performance, giving Claire the kind of multi-dimensionality that marks the very best cinematic creations. Immense kudos to Winstead for her fearless performance: Stearns is her real-life husband and I’m assuming that their relationship allowed her to open up in ways that might not have been possible with another filmmaker. Regardless of the reason, Winstead is quite marvelous as Claire, from her parking lot intro (she puts up a pretty good fight!) all the way through the film’s multiple surprise revelations and twists.
The aforementioned twists, another facet of Stearns’ fantastic script, are yet another reason why I found myself falling in fast love with the film. Quite simply, Faults is the furthest thing from a predictable, run-of-the-mill film as possible. While I’m sure that many audience members might call some of the surprises, I seriously doubt whether anyone will be able to predict them all: the last 20 minutes of the film was a constant barrage of “rug-pulling” that was as exhilarating as it was unpredictable. For all of that, however, Faults still feels completely organic: any and every twist revelation is earned, nothing is unduly telegraphed and the whole film feels as smart as advanced trigonometry, albeit much more fun.
So, here I stand, my application in hand to become a devoted acolyte of the transcendent Faults (no “the,” if you please, as Claire patiently informs Ansel). I’m fully ready to give myself over to flawless filmmaking, extraordinary performances and a casually brilliant script, ready to take that next step and “progress” to quality filmmaking. I’m here to recruit you in this endeavor, as well, to take your hand and lead you to the same light I found. No need for deprogrammers here, my friends: let the Church of Stearns show you the way.