Studio: Screen Media Films
Director: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Producer: Keith Calder, Jessica Calder, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Stars: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Ellis, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick, Leonard Earl Howze, Nicholas Tucci, Beth Grant
A distraught couple hires a washed-up expert on cult mentalities to deprogram their brainwashed daughter.
First-time feature filmmaker Riley Stearns puts underachievers to shame and makes it look easy. After conceiving the story idea for “Faults,” Stearns spent two weeks hammering out his script and within 13 months, he stood onstage at SXSW presenting the finished product to an audience. If the remarkable accomplishment of going from idea to screen in just over a year does not inspire aspiring artists to get off their duffs and start working, nothing will.
That determination to realize a project speedily is not necessarily an inarguable boon, however. “Faults” explores a thought-provoking periphery around concepts of self-confidence and confrontations of willpower, but the frame around the subtext never quite has ample opportunity to settle in properly.
Ansel Roth is a frazzled doctorate-holder whose expertise in the field of cult mentalities once cast him as a TV personality and sought-after savior of the forcibly indoctrinated. Those days are long gone. Ever since overzealous faith in his abilities led to an unfortunate death, Ansel has been relegated to the Holiday Inn lecture circuit while struggling to finagle comped meals from an adjacent greasy spoon.
This is the kind of guy who steals a hotel’s handcart just because it has presumably better value than a handful of tiny soap bars, although he takes those too. Slumped shoulders, a middle-aged mustache, and permanent ripples on a perpetually vexed forehead suggest “born loser” before his story is even told.
His sad sack has-been status is irrelevant to Paul and Evelyn, who want Ansel to rescue their brainwashed daughter Claire from the cult known as Faults. Ansel no longer has a fire burning for deprogramming work, but he does have a loan shark agent and leg-breaking collector providing even better motivation. Like it or not, this opportunity is Ansel’s only ladder out of a deep hole of never-ending failure and he reluctantly takes the job.
If there is any singular incentive to see “Faults,” the one that trumps all others is the outstanding work turned in by its onscreen talent. Having been one of Hollywood’s most prolific and reliable “that guy” actors for nearly 25 years, Leland Orser seamlessly steps into leading role limelight as Ansel. Understated when necessary and commanding when called for, the character is Orser’s to own and he does exactly that.
Evenly matched against Orser’s Ansel is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Claire. She has a simultaneous confidence and vulnerability swapping places underneath her performance that is finely tuned for portraying a personality capable of being both leader and follower.
Winstead’s finger is directly on the pulse of an impressionable mind operating under the drug-like influence of cult instruction. The subtlety in the way she shakes her head left to right while expressing her convictions and the slight pursing of her brow perfectly suggest how Claire is simultaneously incredulous over the questions she is being asked, yet sympathetic that the person asking is incapable of understanding the answers.
The seesaw philosophy battle between Ansel and Claire is where the meat of the story lies. It is also where fascination is to be found in “Faults.” In parts, Stearns and his cast collaborate in fashioning a hypnotic mood through that confrontation and they are mostly successful. Once the script reaches its full stride, there comes a point of genuine wonderment where it seems that not trusting in Claire’s cult beliefs might actually be crazier than the notions themselves.
Where the movie falters is in finding a firm balance to how it wants to deliver all of its layers. “Faults” initially paints itself with a comical base coat through Ansel’s introduction as a hapless goof whose short cons result in physical comedy bumbling and joke-spiked dialogue.
Eventually, “Faults” moves into more serious territory with themes about loss of identity, struggles for human connection, and strength of conviction. That transition works too, as “Faults” grows gradually darker in atmosphere and in violence that escalates from a comical kidnapping to a brutal book bashing.
But by the time the plot takes a detour back to revisiting its original Coen Brothers quirkiness, it becomes a juggling act between the humorous and serious strokes that never blends the two together into a satisfying singular tone. Perhaps due to the film’s short incubation period, it starts coming across as though “Faults” is finding its footing as it moves forward, rather than coming out of the gate with an assured focus.
It is the difference of being in the hands of an experienced veteran who is confident in where to take his/her audience from the beginning versus a newcomer still experimenting with using a cinematic medium for visual storytelling. It makes for a movie with a distinctive vision, though not a wholly premeditated one.
Although predominantly satisfying, there are some rough edges to the production as well. Airplanes can be heard under dialogue on exterior shots. The tight soundstage of a pair of motel rooms makes for constricted camera movements. And with the intensity of two characters carrying the majority of the movie, “Faults” often feels like watching a stage play, for better or for worse.
Given the places that “Faults” wishes to take its narrative, the comedic and surreal accents it adds to the style end up taking the tone out of the frightening realism that movies like “Sound of My Voice” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” evoke. But the top to bottom roster of exceptional talent shines brighter than the wobbled rhythm, giving “Faults” at least one undeniable asset that no reviewer can criticize.
Review Score: 65