If you’re not familiar with the name Riley Stearns but are a fan of American indie cinema, then it’s a name you should really get to know, Faults was Stearns’ first feature, his second being the recent Jesse Eisenberg starrer The Art of Self-Defense. This film follows a cult deprogrammer (Leland Orser) who must help a couple whose daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has recently joined a cult. Also starring: Chris Ellis, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick and Beth Grant.
It’s safe to say that cults are a subject of films that’s been relatively well covered by the likes of The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Master but rarely do they focus on trying to get victims back to their lives before the indoctrination. That’s where Faults comes in, the film starts by introducing us to its cult deprogrammer, Ansel played by Leland Orser and it’s bitingly down to earth, with him hustling away trying to get a free meal and generally pissing people off. It’s a very clever mix of having a certain level of sympathy for him but also seeing his general lack of care, motivation or consideration which curbs that pity and works so well to set up the slow evolution of the audience’s feelings for him as the film progresses. To explain more would be to spoil the experience, so simply put it was a choice by Stearns that makes complete sense with the film as a whole and is an intelligent touch to a very smart film. Orser’s performance is spot on, he’s perfectly all over the place and trying to look professional when it’s no longer his strong suit. Ansel is working hard to deal with everything that gets thrown his way and Orser’s portrayal really gets going once he starts to unravel.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead may be known by many for her roles in Fargo, Birds of Prey, or even (though it’s painful to say) as John McClane’s daughter in Live Free or Die Hard but Winstead has done some her best work in indie cinema, with the exception of her fantastic turn in 10 Cloverfield Lane, and there’s a lot more than just Ramona Flowers. Perhaps the best of which is her performance as Claire in Faults, she holds an extraordinary control over the audience as well as the other characters, the entire film she gives a complex air of mystery to the character and you can never quite figure out what she’s thinking, planning or what her motives are. It’s a performance that’s almost hard to adequately describe because she’s a very complicated character, but Winstead constantly holds herself in such a way that you know Claire’s every movement and every word is entirely purposeful, you might not know of what purpose but you can see the wheels turning behind her cold, piercing eyes.
That strong control is only amplified by Stearns’ directing, it feels like it follows the story through Ansel’s eyes and as he begins to lose the upper hand, the control slackens its grip and adapts to reflect the mystery and uncertainty of the situation. Everything in the film feels streamlined, there’s no errant shots or lines of dialogue that don’t fit seamlessly, and what it does unbelievably well, is make it so that the pacing keeps a fantastic beat which never stops or slows down but at the same time the film feels very still and purposeful, it’s impressive and riveting to watch. The whole film has a palpably strange atmosphere, it’s unusual but incredibly tense and results in a relentless energy which you can’t take your eyes off of. Stearns’ style feels almost similar to Jeff Nichols with Take Shelter, it’s very creative, intimate and intense.
Original screenplays are sadly increasingly rare in cinema these days, which makes well-written examples all the more special because it’s such a satisfying experience to watch, and this is one of them. The story comes across in such a way that it’s hard to predict what will happen next, then it’s topped by a score that’s so eery, it really gives the impression that genuinely anything could happen. This is intelligent story telling that sincerely manages to hold its mystery throughout, no matter if you’re the type who can’t help but to make predictions on what will happen, you won’t get it dead on because even after the credits roll, there’s still that inkling in the back of your mind that there’s even more to this story. That’s what is so clever about it, not only Winstead’s performance but almost every aspect makes you think that there’s so much more going on than you can ever know.
Faults is the ultimate battle of wills and wits between Claire and Ansel, it questions who really is in control which perfectly reflects the mindset of those brainwashed into joining cults. It has a very strong and utterly compelling energy that’s relentless yet still, it’s full of mystery and questions, it’s bursting with dangerous possibilities and keeps you on the edge of your seat to find out which way it will go. Winstead and Orser give career highlight performances, to the point that you’d probably have to watch the film several times to fully unpack and appreciate them. Stearns’ style is confident and purposeful, both in direction and writing, leaving you with a film that’s as unpredictable as it is satisfying.