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Faults [AFI Fest 2014]
Screen Media Films // Unrated // March 6, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
The mere concept of a cult can prove to be a fascinating one, and can be twisted in order to accommodate slightly different genres. Many of them have the potential to be incredibly eerie, as it asks for us to question the motives of those around us. Films such as Rosemary's Baby and the more recent horror feature The Sacrament are quite successful when it comes to the art of chilling us to the bone. In his feature debut titled Faults, Riley Stearns has toured a bit of the film festival market, starting at SXSW in Austin, Texas. However, it tries to approach this plot category from a new angle, by lending the idea to more of a dramatic thriller with hints of comedy. While the more unique angle is appreciated, the direction that it walks in simply doesn't work through the picture's entire duration.
Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is a washed up expert on mind control, and the structure that makes up a cult. While his first book was massively successful, he has now resorted to giving talks in cheap hotels in hopes of selling a newer book that he has written. A worried married couple approaches him with concerns about their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has been gripped by a mysterious cult called "Faults." Desperate to be reunited with their daughter, they hire Ansel to kidnap Claire and find a way to detach her from the ideas of the cult, and convince her to come home.
The first act of Faults introduces a large amount of the drama with the hints of comedy that were mentioned previously. Ansel takes advantage of everybody around him, as he tries to argue with the waiter at the hotel restaurant about using a voucher for a free meal that has already been redeemed. This is followed by a variety of other attempts to take advantage of everybody, quickly forming this character into a real scumbag. When Claire's parents first approach him, he has absolutely no interest in helping, until he finds that he has hit rock bottom. His manager, Terry (Jon Gries) has dropped him as a client and has sent Mick (Lance Reddick) in order to scare him enough to collect the funds that are owed. While it's necessary to see him hit an all-time low before becoming desperate enough to take this job, the whole drama with ex-manager Terry feels entirely unfitting. Rather than moving naturally with the progression of the story, it feels more like a dreadful distraction from something that has the potential to be investing and immersive. However, as soon as we return to the main plot, we're glad that the story is moving, even though it has problems of its own.
Once Ansel gets Claire into hotel room far away, Faults finally finds its hook. Since we know as little about the cult as Ansel does, we're trying to piece the puzzle together just as much as him, as he continues to dig for answers to his questions. The more that we discover about this group, the more powerful her connection to it appears to be. We feel just as trapped in this room as Claire does, until he begins to leave in order to deal with more of the Terry drama. However, even when we're in the room with Claire and Ansel, Faults endures some serious issues. Even though the running time is only around 90 minutes long, Stearns takes an unusually long time to get to the point. Even though it doesn't take very much time to know the direction that it's moving in, he really drags out each of the reveals. In most cases, the more time that passes before the twists, the more powerful they can become. In the situation of Faults, it feels so delayed that the picture is almost entirely deprived of tension. This leads to a lackluster finale that doesn't exactly pack the punch that it thinks it is.
Thus far, it might sound as if this film lacks a single redeeming quality, although it's most successful when it's focusing on the more dramatic elements. Claire is a fascinatingly mysterious character that we never truly get to know. It constantly feels as if we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. There's a massive amount of substance hiding underneath the surface of this role, making her a much more intriguing role. One of the only things that keeps Faults interesting is Claire, and the ominous cult that could possibly have some incredibly twisted goals that they're trying to achieve. The plot itself might become predictable, but since we're never told very much about the cult, it remains the only element of the picture that makes us think. It becomes a surreal journey about the relationship between followers and the leader. This becomes an intriguing message, although a subtle approach soon turns into an overly-explained finale.
Writer/director Riley Stearns has employed a more than capable cast that works incredibly well. Leland Orser is excellent as Ansel. We've seen him in plenty of other projects, but it's great to see him handle more complex material. This proves that he has a range that surpasses our expectations. The character may be a real scumbag, but Orser makes for a truly convincing one. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is entirely convincing as Claire. Without speaking a word of dialogue, she aids in elevating our intrigue in the overall plot. Even when the film is at its lowest point, Claire manages to at least keep us interested in what other possible motives could be at play. When the two are having discussions about Faults, we're drawn in by their true grasp of these characters and their motives.
While this may be Riley Stearns' first time in the directing chair for a full-length feature, that should be no excuse for how visually uninterested Faults is. Utilizing a primarily yellow color palette, the overall look is quite generic. There are a wide variety of strange shots that simply don't work, although a large majority of this may be due to the editing. There are occasional pauses in between lines of dialogue when switching from one angle to the next, pulling us out of the atmosphere of the film. Stearns is still clearly finding his visual fingerprint, which can sometimes take a filmmaker quite some time to entirely discover. Hopefully his next film will look more visually interesting. However, he manages to achieve a claustrophobic tone in the hotel room, but this is thwarted by the screenplay's inability to take advantage of this.
Even with its intriguing premise and a progressively fascinating couple of lead characters, this is a screenplay with great ideas. We never learn very much about this cult, creating a consistently mysterious tone that immerses the entire film. However, writer/director Riley Stearns takes an incredibly long time to get to the point of the film, when the audience is already far ahead. The plot beats are predictable, and it doesn't capitalize upon the mysteries that it creates. Owning its claustrophobic atmosphere in the hotel room for some time, it ultimately shies away by exploring a sub-plot that doesn't even need to exist. Fortunately, Orser and Winstead are fantastic in creating tension, which is consistently abandoned by the screenplay. This isn't a complete waste of time, but it's far from effective. Faults is ironically full of them. Rent it.
Faults played at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi on November 9 and November 12.