AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in ‘Faults’ Review
As anyone who likes movies knows, there are times when what you enjoy differs far from the rest of the populous. With a film festival, rarely do you have other opinions to go on. You have to just scour the descriptions and maybe see a trailer in order to determine which films to see. In choosing to see “Faults,” I was not hamstrung by such little information. I did have a recommendation. It was from the same person who drove me to see “Wild Tales,” which I loved. “Faults” was supposed to be a thriller about mind control. It happened to star one of the biggest names (in an independent film) in the festival, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The cast spoke during a Q&A afterward, one of them being Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels from “The Wire”), all waxing rhapsodic about how urgently they wanted to be involved based on the script. To be honest, it knocked my respect down for him a peg. At least with Winstead, she has built-in excuse of being the writer-director’s (Riley Stearns) wife.
Winstead is not the problem at all here. Nor is her co-star, Leland Orser. In fact, they’re commended for doing yeoman’s work with the material. Orser plays Ansel Roth, a pathetic and broken down mind control “expert.” At least that’s how he passes himself off. He’s written a couple of books and used to have a TV show, but has fallen into such a downward spiral (perhaps caused by an unfortunate incident with a subject years beforehand) that he performs seminars at hotels for crowds of less than twenty people (if you can call less than twenty people at a seminar “a crowd”; some people think three is enough). He has no money to pay for food, attempting to reuse a free-meal hotel voucher he cashed in the day before. He wears the same lifeless brown suit on a daily basis. And he owes a financial debt to his manager under the threat of physical force doled out by Mick (Reddick).
Ansel is given life when, during one of his seminars, he is approached by a couple who feels they’ve lost their 28-year-old daughter, Claire (Winstead), to a cult called “Faults” (put an article like “the” in front of their name and be verbally beheaded). Ansel is hired to find her, deprogram her warped mind and restore the child her parents know and love. They’ll pay handsomely enough to remove Ansel from his underwater finances. However, the stress of his past failures entangle him with Claire to the point of where it’s no longer clear whom is controlling the mind of whom.
The pity prize of the day is that at least the film looks good. Thanks to the progression of digital cameras, no longer are film festival indies reduced to looking like as ragged as Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” But, that hasn’t been the case for a while now. Visuals need to be supported by other storytelling elements. I mentioned acting was not the issue. In fact, I would say it’s superb. Stearns was smart enough to turn the camera toward his wife and let her give a performance she’s not often afforded the luxury of being able to give. A big hand should be given to Orser, too, whom I only recognized from a line or two in “Saving Private Ryan,” but has the leading man qualities actors normally given those roles lack. I’d be very pleased to see him have another starring turn.
As for the film, I’d be just as pleased to never see it again. Stearns said afterward that he was obsessed with cults and mind control when he was younger. Obsessed-over subjects turned into movies tend to go just a couple of ways. They can excel as a labor of love or the filmmaker can assume the audience knows just as much about the subject as they do, barring the viewer from ever actually stepping into their world. It’s certainly more the latter than the former. Although the cast raved about the life the script had, it appeared stillborn when committed to screen. The experience was devoid of little suspense or tension, just a few bouts of weirdness and a twist about as shocking as a little hand buzzer you might encounter at Spencer’s Gifts for a dollar. Someone please send Ansel Roth to deprogram this movie from my memory.