When we first see Catherine (Elizabeth Moss), she appears to be melting. Mascara and eyeliner running down her face. Her hair dripping. She is reacting to a breakup. Badly. The camera clings to her distorted face as she reels from the news apparently just delivered by her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley) and is by turns angry and despondent as she absorbs her new reality. It’s a visceral foreshadowing of the emotional breakdown in progress, and of those to come.
The specifics of that ended relationship will be revealed in the course of QUEEN OF EARTH, and they will be revealed to Catherine’s best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston). While James is moving out of Catherine’s apartment, she has taken refuge in the lake house that belongs to Virginia’s family, and it will soon be obvious that this location may have been the worst possible choice for Catherine to recuperate. Memories of the last time the two friends were there haunt the present with their poignant correspondences. Last summer, it was James as the unwelcome third wheel; this summer, it’s Virginia’s casual hook-up, Rich (Patrick Fugit), who is causing the tension between the two women. Tension that exacerbates the myriad of petty annoyances that each has carried about the other over the years, and that keep surfacing with a vitriol that astonishes the gentlemen in question.
As the days pass, then and now, what is real and what is assumption dance around each other while Catherine and Virginia’s emotional intimacy ebbs and flows as it fails to provide the solace each needs. Instead, Catherine’s anger over her break-up, the recent loss of her father, and a mysterious pain in her face that no doctor can concretely diagnose compel her to get under Virginia’s skin the way only a best friend can. Virginia responds with concern, confusion, and complete helplessness as she realizes that Catherine is slipping away on many levels.
Moss is a formidable force of twisted nature. At once vulnerable and acerbic, chaotic and single-minded, she renders Catherine’s pain palpable even as she staunchly refuses to pander to the audience’s sympathies. Her portrait of a lost soul is as poignant as it is repellant; her fits of giggling more disconcerting than her tears or angry outburst. One can empathize, but there is no impetus to put one’s arms around her in an attempt to offer comfort, just as there is every impetus to watch intently for what she will do next. Waterston is more than a mere sounding board. As Virginia is returning the digs and mimicking the sarcasm meted out to her with barbed gusto, Waterston keeps her emotionally present, looking with increasing, yet measured, desperation, for reasons not to cut this person from her life as she has with so many others that have become emotional drains.
QUEEN OF THE EARTH is a clean dissection of alienation told with brutal honesty and a refreshing lack of melodrama. Not everything is explained, nor does it need to be in this riveting emotional thriller. The sudden distance between the two followed by a peace offering in the form of a salad that is then left to rot is all the more eloquent for being enigmatic. And the film is all the more powerful for not attempting to put into words what is beyond language.