Faults: SXSW Review

Jack Zeman
A desperation-fueled psychological trip laced with black comedy

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a cult member being deprogrammed by Leland Orser.

AUSTIN– As Riley Stearns's Faults begins, with scenes of a washed-up public speaker being humiliated in the diner of a cheap hotel, viewers may suspect they know what they're in for: A broadly drawn, perhaps mean-spirited comedy about this pathetic man, once an authority on rescuing young people who'd joined cults. But Faults is not what it seems. Though a black-comic atmosphere persists, the debut feature is serious about manipulation and brainwashing, and a quietly commanding performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the director's wife) helps establish that seriousness once the main plot -- in which the failed expert is enlisted to deprogram a couple's daughter -- gets underway. Sure to turn heads at fests, the picture should find enough support to justify an art house run.

STORY: Where to Eat, Stay and Play in Austin

Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) has lost his TV series, his book royalties and his wife since his last deprogramming assignment ended tragically; these days he scrounges anything he can get for free, lives in his car and dodges requests from his manager Terry (Jon Gries) to pay back the cash he borrowed to self-publish a failed new book about cults. He's a beaten man, and Orser makes him more pitiable by hiding glimmers of competence and authority within his generally desperate performance.

When an older couple (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) want to hire him to rescue their daughter Claire (Winstead), Roth sees a way to finally repay Terry, whose requests have turned to threats. He kidnaps the young woman, locks her into a motel room (with her parents sequestered next door) and deprives her of sleep for a night. She's remarkably calm about being held, apparently because she believes she could kill Roth easily if her cult family -- Faults is their name -- sent her a message to do so.

Given the evident solidity of Claire's will, it's surprising how quickly some of Roth's strategies work. Soon he's reintroducing her to her parents, finding the love she still feels for them; at the same time, Claire's father shows signs of a domineering side that might explain why she left home.

Winstead has plenty of emotional ground to navigate in the ensuing action, pointing viewers down some false paths in our assessment of her state of mind and relationship to those around her. The movie's look may be that of an off-kilter comedy -- Emily Batson's knowingly tacky costumes, James Pearse Connelly's browntastic motel decor -- but it soon starts to mine convincing psychodrama from the scenario. Stearns' script wastes no time in twisting things up, with suggestions of the supernatural and gangster-like subplots making the reprogramming effort more urgent. By the time the film gets where it's going, viewers may identify more than they expect with those who've been controlled by others with hidden agendas.


Production Company: Snoot Entertainment

Cast: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Beth Grant, Chris Ellis, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick

Director-Screenwriter: Riley Stearns

Producers: Keith Calder, Jessica Calder, Mary Elizabeth Winsted

Executive producer: Brian Joe

Director of photography: Michael Ragen

Production designer: James Pearse Connelly

Music: Heather McIntosh

Costume designer: Emily Batson

Editor: Sarah Beth Shapiro

No rating, 89 minutes