Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH opens with a dramatic close-up of Catherine Hewitt (played by Elisabeth Moss). She’s been crying so hard that mascara is running down her face. This long, unbroken shot is a perfect visual representation of the pain Catherine is feeling inside. She talks to an off-screen boyfriend in a hurt, angry tone. It’s clear that she is in the process of having her heart broken and is struggling to deal with it. Eventually, the film cuts to a brief shot of the man who is devastating her, but then it goes right back to Catherine. We are encouraged to look into her eyes, to see the raw emotion pouring out. From these opening minutes, QUEEN OF EARTH establishes its willingness to examine the very nature of depression without the eventual feel-good sheen a lot of Hollywood movies awkwardly try to put on the subject. This is one of the most vital films ever made about how it feels to be depressed.
Catherine, it turns out, has suffered two blows. In addition to getting dumped, her beloved artist father died not too long ago. Now devoid of the two most important men in her life, she turns to best friend Ginny Lowell (Katherine Waterston) for support. The two women go to the latter’s family lake house together for a week of intended recovery, but it doesn’t go as planned. Ginny ends up allowing a neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), to hang around. Catherine resents his intrusion into what is supposed to be an exercise in female bonding, which leads to conflict with Ginny. QUEEN OF EARTH intersperses this plot with flashbacks to the summer before, when Catherine thoughtlessly brought the now ex-boyfriend to the lake house while Ginny was the one going through a difficult emotional time. This leads to the question of whether Ginny is intentionally trying to antagonize Catherine in retaliation, or whether the two simply don’t know how to truly be there for one another during times of crisis.
Most movies about depression deal with the things you can externally see: staying in bed, crying, suicide attempts, etc. QUEEN OF EARTH is notable because it looks at the more internal stuff. For example, right out of the gate, the film shows a recognition that people who are depressed often feel alone. Catherine’s boyfriend and father, by different means, have both left her, and Ginny’s seeming use of Rich as a way to retreat leaves her without her best friend. She seeks some sort of connection with others who cross her path – including a guy she finds passed out in the woods – but nothing fills the void. Perry very wisely has Catherine and Ginny drift apart before our eyes. In the movie’s signature scene, the two women have a nine-minute conversation, filmed in one perfectly-executed extended take. Catherine starts off talking about her woes, then Ginny hijacks the conversation, expounding on things that have caused her pain in the past. She is oblivious to the fact that her friend was baring her soul. This sequence conveys the alienation of depression, the feeling that even those ostensibly closest to you are somehow just out of reach, or unable to fully understand the depth of your misery.
Music also plays a big part in the way QUEEN OF EARTH explores its central topic. The score (by Keegan DeWitt) often sounds like something out of a horror movie. One brief scene, in which Catherine, Ginny, and Rich canoe across the lake, is scored so ominously that you half expect Jason Voorhees to emerge from the woods and hack somebody’s head off with a machete. Sonically, the use of eerie music underscores the idea that, when you suffer from clinical depression, even the most mundane of moments can feel terrifying. This effect is accomplished several times throughout the film, almost subliminally making the audience feel the ever-present sense of undefinable menace that overwhelms Catherine and anyone else living with this particular mental anguish.
Finally, and most importantly, QUEEN OF EARTH understands that depression is often misunderstood by those not afflicted with it. We know that Catherine is suffering. Those around her, especially Rich, just don’t get that fact. Over the course of the story, Catherine is told that she’s “a spoiled brat” and that she’s just feeling sorry for herself. These are refrains that depression sufferers know all too well. People mistake a clinical condition for self-pity, or suggest that someone can merely “snap out of it.” The idea that it’s beyond the individual’s control is something too many folks can’t conceive of. This is one of the main reasons why a mental health stigma exists to this day.
Alex Ross Perry has taken a wise approach. Rather than making a standard-issue drama about the subject, he opts for something quite different. QUEEN OF EARTH often feels like the first hour of an old exploitation picture – the part with all the slow-burn buildup and mounting dread. We wait with anticipation to see what will happen between these two women, who seem so competitive in the imaginary race to determine whose problems have been worse. The difference is that Perry offers none of the release you’d associate with exploitation fare. No one dies, and there are no sudden bursts of violence. By the end, Catherine has neither conquered nor succumbed to her depression. She just moves forward with it, prepared to see both bad days and good.
During a recent screening of QUEEN OF EARTH at the historic Campus Theatre in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Perry discussed his choice to tell this story with female characters. He pointed out cinema’s long history of using women to portray breakdowns, adding that “men having a breakdown becomes THE SHINING.” While that remark was clearly tongue-in-cheek, he’s got a point. Gender stereotypes persist, and audiences have become accustomed to seeing men onscreen handle inner turmoil (be it anger, fear, or sadness) via aggressive means. In having two female leads, QUEEN OF EARTH allows us to focus on the things happening under the surface, rather than subconsciously waiting for violence to occur.
Elisabeth Moss co-starred in Perry’s previous film, the delightful LISTEN UP PHILIP. The director told the crowd at the Campus that a movie such as QUEEN OF EARTH “couldn’t have come about without a relationship with the performer.” In other words, he knew what Moss was capable of, and she understood what he was attempting to do with this story. The result is a first-class collaboration that digs deep into the subject of depression’s most insidious qualities.
It’s amazing that a movie about such a dark subject can play so thrillingly and vibrantly.
Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan