Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Faults"

Review: Can’t Find “Faults” in Riley Stearns’ Clever, Comic Cult Thriller

During the post-screening Q & A for “Faults,” writer/director Riley Stearns explained his trouble finding a proper leading man for his first feature, a problem that was solved when from the mere description of a man with a mustache and suit in his script, his producer Keith Calder passed along a photo from his concurrently shooting “The Guest” of Leland Orser, who happened to have a mustache at the time. Fortunately for Orser, this was the longtime character actor’s Lana Turner moment and more fortunately for Stearns, Orser agreed to star in the film. (Even Stearns’ wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead jokingly admitted earlier to reading the script and being frustrated he wrote such a challenging character for her to play.)

The difficulty of casting is made clearer upon seeing the exceptionally clever tightrope walk from start to its delicious finish that Stearns has crafted with “Faults,” the wonderfully peculiar tale of Dr. Ansel Roth, a bestselling cult deprogrammer who’s fallen on hard times, pitching his latest book at discount hotel seminars and maxing out his per diems for speaking. Although he touts free will, he is a slave to money, at rock bottom thanks to a self-publishing deal gone bad when he’s approached by the parents of a young woman (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) who’s disappeared and thought to belong to a cult known as “Faults.” With the promise of cash, Ansel is soon in a white van, ready to abduct the woman formerly known as Claire (Winstead) from her local Foodmart and whisks her away to a fleabag motel for a five-day cleanse.

However, it’s quickly obvious after the ex-Claire first speaks that Ansel’s in a race to deprogram her before she reprograms him, the process accelerated even further by the threat of his loanshark (Jon Gries), who sends a bolo-tie wearing Lance Reddick after him to collect. That Gries and Reddick make a considerable impression in what likely amounts to less than five minutes of screentime, is not just a testament to the actors, but also to Stearns, who populates the film with eccentric and exquisite details, so much so that it’s only after it’s over you realize it took place in largely one location.

Stearns doesn’t elide an actual conversation about the contrasting belief systems of Winstead’s ethereal believer and Orser’s desperate cynic, lending some actual gravitas to the proceedings. But he also revels in the entertaining possibilities of the tête-à-tête waged in mental manipulation between the pair and though the film exists in a continual state of beige, since Ansel’s pallid condition extends to his sense of style and surroundings, it’s the performances and the constant stream of little surprises that make the movie burst with color.

Both Orser and Winstead don’t just seem ever-present with each other in their spats, but play up the physicality of their characters, whether it’s Orser’s shrunken sadsack demeanor or Winstead’s expressive eyes that speak even when she’s initially hauled in all tied up with duct tape on her mouth. While Ansel and Claire wrestle for domination over one another, Stearns and his production team show a complete control over all aspects of the film to ratchet up the anxiety, from the way the sound design emphasizes the blare of air conditioners as Ansel walks past his room to the curious camerawork of Michael Ragen, which knows the value of a slow pan. By the end, regardless of whatever other beliefs you may have, you have faith in a provocative new filmmaker with a killer sense of humor.

“Faults” will be released next year by Screen Media Films. It screens twice at AFI Fest in Los Angeles on November 9th at 8:30 pm at the Chinese 6 and November 12th at 3:30 pm at the Chinese 2.

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