Friday, June 17, 2016
FAULTS (Riley Stearns, 2014)
If Dr. Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) hasn’t hit rock bottom as FAULTS begins, he doesn’t have much farther to fall. He gets booted from a hotel restaurant for trying to use an already-redeemed meal voucher he fished out of the trash. Presumably just about everything he owns fits into his compact hatchback, including the boxes of books he schleps to his speaking events in hotel meeting rooms. Ansel is an expert on mind control and cults, but the suicide of a woman he tried to deprogram cost him a television show, his wife, and virtually everything else of value.
He’s so tired of his specialty and the point it has brought him to that he initially declines an opportunity to assist a middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) who are desperate to break the grip a cult named Faults has on their 28-year-old daughter. When his agent demands repayment of a large sum of money or else, Ansel reluctantly agrees to perform the expensive deprogramming work. He is upfront with the parents that the success rate is just fifty percent. He and two hired hands abduct Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a grocery store parking lot. They take her to a motel room where, over five days, Ansel will attempt to weaken and sever the cult’s hold on her.
As Ansel is at wit’s end, he’s not exactly in the best state of mind to be facing off against someone with a newfound sense of inner strength. Naturally Claire is concerned about being snatched in public and kept captive, but it could be argued that she is better suited to withstand the immediate strains in the situation than her counselor. For all of his personal shortcomings, FAULTS shows Ansel to be professionally skilled, if somewhat of a bumbler. Writer-director Riley Stearns makes clear the seriousness of what’s at stake but uses a darkly comedic sensibility to toy with Ansel’s dignity. The scenario seems more fraught with danger because of the doctor’s vulnerability, not the patient’s.
To breed trust, Ansel alternates periods of intense discussion with restful time for Claire to reconnect with her parents. FAULTS also takes pauses so Ansel can address the increasing pressure he’s getting to set things right with his agent. Such moments are important in the process of bringing him even lower, but they don’t function so much as necessary releases from the tension but as interruptions. FAULTS rivets when Ansel and Claire duel in their cat-and-mouse confidence game, not quite knowing which is gaining the upper hand. The other stuff matters but is established well enough that returning to it isn’t essential.
A cult leader strives to strip a person of self-assurance and prior relationships and then take the place of what has been removed. A deprogrammer is essentially doing the same in reverse by attempting to clear away the cult-inspired certainty and connections so as to reestablish healthy foundation. Orser and Winstead’s performances convey the mental forces in opposition, with Ansel trying to weaken Claire’s defenses while her resistance rubs against the spots where he is exposed. Although Ansel is trying to present a rational, empathetic appearance, Orser plays him tightly coiled. The line between his suggestibility and his patient’s is narrow. Orser wears the demeaned nature of the character that can make it funny that Ansel is the one trying to eliminate someone else’s dysfunction.
Winstead brings a serene air to Claire that shows her capable of compliance as the circumstances demand yet not willing to yield her agency to the man aiming to shatter and reform how she views the world. In light of her role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, which opened two years after FAULTS debuted on the festival circuit, Winstead’s Claire stands as a fascinating variation of the woman held against her will. Both characters generate power in maintaining the impression of assenting to their antagonists’ commands, but watch out when the facade ruptures.