Queen of Earth (IFC, DVD), Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to his breakout feature Listen Up Philip, is much more intimate a character drama. Elisabeth Moss, who was the neglected and betrayed girlfriend in Philip, takes the lead here as a Catherine, a young woman reeling from the sudden death of her father at the same time as the emotional fallout of a bad breakup. She takes refuge in the comfort of her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), a trust-fund baby spending her days on perpetual vacation, in her Virginia’s family upscale vacation cabin in the woods.
Catherine and Virginia are not what you would call likable. These best friends are privileged women who slip into defensive posture whenever they feel the glare of judgment upon them, which is often. They are ostensibly there for each other, yet so self-involved they can barely break out of their own little bubbles. Neither writer/director Alex Ross Perry nor his actresses attempt to soften these characters. Moss plays Catherine as vulnerable and in pain, tangled in a torrent of contradictory emotions—anger, betrayal, love, hate, don’t leave me and get the hell out of here—but also narcissistic, self-involved, without any ability to empathize, and Waterston is distant and wary as Virginia, still angry at Catherine’s neglect of her emotional turmoil in a previous getaway. Yet, surprisingly, we actually come to care for them—or at the very least worry about them.
What should be a weekend of bestie comfort becomes fraught with expectations, assumptions, and resentment. It’s like an American indie reworking of Hollywood high melodrama—initial pettiness and sniping grows into passive-aggressive war between bitchy frenemies in close quarters—but instead of the theatrical thrill of showboating spectacle of divas dueling with sophisticated wit and sneering delivery we get something uncomfortably intimate and personal. Moss is truly scary as she slips into dazed smiles and giggling fits. It may sound unpleasant to watch but Perry and his performers draw you into this raw chamber piece. You can’t look away, and neither can you dismiss the emotional wreckage of friends who fail each other so spectacularly.
On DVD, with commentary by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry and producer / star Elisabeth Moss and a featurette. Also on Netflix.
Available on Tuesday, December 29 is Bone Tomahawk (RLJ, Blu-ray, DVD), the other 2015 western starring Kurt Russell. But rest assured, this is no knock-off created to cash in on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The feature debut by writer / director S. Craig Zahler is a sturdy frontier western about strong but decidedly mortal settlers who take the responsibilities of community seriously, and its odyssey takes them to the border of horror cinema without leaving its frontier drama landscape or sensibility.
Russell is Sheriff Franklin Hunt, the aging lawman of a small, mostly peaceful town that is rocked when a deputy and a doctor (Lili Simmons), the wife of an injured cowboy, are kidnapped in a guerrilla raid on the local jail. His rather small posse consists of his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins in the chatty Walter Brennan role), an erudite gunman with a particular hatred of the Indians (Matthew Fox), and the injured husband (Patrick Wilson), enduring a fractured leg that becomes gangrenous along the way. Even the local tribes don’t recognize the renegade tribe as Indian—they are troglodytes, according the town’s only Native American representative, cave dwellers that have turned to cannibalism—and that’s where the horror creeps into the drama.
Zahler takes his time—the film lopes along for more than two hours—and favors the rhythms and evocative dialogue of a frontier drama. For all the urgency of the posse’s mission, it’s a journey of days through the desert and the characters fill the time with defining personalities: the easy-going affability of Sheriff Hunt that becomes sharpened by the focus of tracking the raiding party, the garrulous way that Chicory talks, like a lonely old man trying to be useful (“It’s the opinion of the back-up deputy that…”), the arrogance and urbane language of the educated townsman whose character recalls the gamblers of classic westerns but whose backstory reveals different tale, the resolute determination of the cowboy husband who will not shirk his duty despite the crippling ordeal. It’s something like a western story song with gruesome twist.
There’s a gruesome edge to it in the opening, a prologue with David Arquette and Sid Haig as cutthroats who run into the savage tribe, and in the final act, where the tribe’s sadistic brutality is shocking even this age of cinema violence. But Zahler doesn’t revel on the violent spectacle. It flirts with horror but remains rooted in the physical frontier world and grounded in character, both of which Zahler sculpts with a richness of texture and detail that makes it live and breathe.
The film had a limited theatrical release along with a Cable On Demand availability. Apparently the studios have little faith that a western can bring an audience into theaters, at least not one that doesn’t come with Tarantino’s pedigree. It deserved better and I hope the disc release will bring more attention to this smart, savvy genre picture.
There’s a featurette, a deleted scenes, and a Q&A with the director and cast at the Fantastic Fest screening. It’s also available to stream on Amazon Prime starting January 1.
Also new and notable:
Pan (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is yet another take on the “Peter Pan” story, this one a lavish fantasy that imagines the origins of the boy who never grew up with Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, Garrett Hedlund as Hook, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, and Levi Miller as Peter. Joe Wright directs. Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette. The Blu-ray includes three additional featurettes and director commentary plus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.
Pawn Sacrifice (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) stars Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky in this dramatization of the chess match that became the focus of the world when it became a symbolic battle of minds in the Cold War. Blu-ray and DVD with a featurette and a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.