If Alex Ross Perry’s previous film, “Listen Up Philip,” aspired to the kaleidoscopic narrative density of a John Fowles or William Gaddis, his new “Queen of Earth” carries the spiky intensity and tart aftertaste of a John Cheever short story, as it observes the psychological breakdown of a young woman coping (badly) with a series of abrupt life changes. An unnerving, acidly funny work that fosters an acute air of dread without ever fully announcing itself as a horror movie, Perry’s fourth feature may unfold on a smaller canvas than the expansive “Philip,” but is every bit as sure of what it wants to do and how to get there, built around an utterly fearless central performance by Elisabeth Moss. Audiences who found Perry’s earlier work misanthropic won’t want to touch “Queen” with a 10-foot pole, but heartier souls — and connoisseurs of uncompromising auteur cinema — should rise to the occasion.
A deep-dish cinephile with a pronounced affection for late 1960s/early 1970s alt-Hollywood cinema, Perry is working this time in a style that seems equally influenced by doppelganger narratives like Bergman’s “Persona” and Brian De Palma’s “Sisters,” as well as by the claustrophobic domestic terror of “Repulsion” and Chantal Akerman’s seminal “Jeanne Dielman.” (Perry himself has also cited Woody Allen’s “Interiors” as a key influence.) Here, the obligatory woman on the verge is Catherine (Moss, also credited as a producer), who comes to spend a week of self-imposed “exile” at the lake house of her best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston), following the death of her father and a bad breakup from her longtime boyfriend. We are somewhere in the tranquil Hudson River Valley, and the silence is deafening.
Catherine arrives seeming almost shell-shocked, sleeping most of the day away, complaining of a strange (possibly psychosomatic) pain coursing through her face, and making fitful attempts at painting Virginia’s portrait (Catherine’s late father, we learn, was a noted artist, for whom she worked as a kind of glorified assistant). Against this, Perry shows us what life at the lake house was like a year earlier, when Catherine previously paid a visit — earlier times, and happier ones, too, for some characters if not for others. The Catherine we see there is in the full bloom of her romance with James (Kentucker Audley), a terminally laid-back dude whose influence over his girlfriend is a source of pronounced irritation for the dyspeptic Virginia.
“We should trade roles and see how we feel then,” she says to Catherine, intoning the shape of things to come. Back in the present, the tables have indeed turned, with Virginia now under the sway of the literal boy next door (Patrick Fugit), who, in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, becomes the target of Catherine’s most vitriolic contempt, the very personification of all that is wrong with the human race.
The flashbacks in “Queen of Earth” are like little Proustian splinters that lodge under the skin of the characters as they run their hands along the bannisters of the past. Perry, who excels at finding cinematic analogs for the time-shifting narrative devices common in literature, gives the movie the superstructure of a diary, delineated into daily chapters, and within each of those chapters moves nimbly back and forth between now and then. Whenever we are, the small wooden house is a constant, rarely parted from and seeming ever more like a Bunuelian prison from which the characters are unable to leave. The wonderfully eerie tone (enhanced by composer Keegan DeWitt’s minimalist, atonal piano score) keeps you on a razor’s edge of uncertainty as to whether a murder or a reconciliation — or both — lurks just around the bend.
Hell is other people in Perry’s world, especially the people who know you best, who understand exactly how to push your most sensitive buttons — which, at the end of the day, seems to be this filmmaker’s particular definition of friendship. Waterston (“Inherent Vice”), who towers over the diminutive Moss, is a passive-aggressive delight as the friend who wears her social privilege with an air of casual smugness. But the movie belongs to Moss, who was wonderful as the title character’s neglected girlfriend in “Listen Up Philip,” and who again seems to have gotten profoundly on to Perry’s wavelength. She plays out Catherine’s decline with such startling, unpredictable rhythms that her every gesture seems conceived in the moment. Together, she and Perry pull you deeply into the character’s jaundiced orbit, until even her wildest suppositions seem to make a kind of private sense.
Like “Philip,” “Queen” sports a terrific handcrafted look courtesy of cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ warm 16mm lensing, which favors tight closeups of the seemingly mundane actions that could, in the right circumstances, drive a person crazy. The front and end credits fill the screen in an elegantly calligraphic font by designer Teddy Blanks, like invitations to a party no one in their right mind would want to attend.
Attentive viewers will note that Waterston’s leisure reading in one scene consists of a novel by fictional “Philip” scribe Ike Zimmerman.