Directed by: Riley Stearns.
Written by: Riley Stearns.
Starring: Leland Orser (Ansel), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Claire), Chris Ellis (Dad), Beth Grant (Evelyn), Jon Gries (Terry), Lance Reddick (Mick).
If you’ve watched much TV or many movies over the past two decades or so, you’ve probably seen Leland Orser dozens of times, and not really noticed. He has almost 80 acting credits over the years – appearing, mainly in small roles, in dozens of movies – large and small – and TV shows. He is the classic definition of a character actor, and looking back over his screen credits, I do find I remember him in his best work – like his one scene wonder in David Fincher’s Seven as a man forced to do a horrible thing. Or in last year’s excellent The Guest, as a patriarch who at first doesn’t trust the new houseguest, but hell, it gives him a drinking buddy, so who cares? Actors like Orser are always supposed to be in the background – coming forward for a scene or two, and then fading from memory.
In Faults, Orser finally gets his chance to be a leading man – and he makes the most of it. The movie asks a lot from Orser, whose performance veers, along with the movie, from comedy to tragedy, and everything in between. Ultimately, the movie ends up in precisely the spot I thought it would when the movie began – but the process of getting there is much different than I anticipated. And Orser, who is the center of every scene, is terrific throughout.
Orser stars as Ansel – a middle aged, pathetic shell of a man. He was once famous – he had his own TV show, and a bestselling book, both about cults – and getting people out of them. Something went wrong though – we get some, but not all, of the details throughout the movie – and now Ansel is stuck shilling his new book – that no one wants to buy – to small crowds in rundown hotel conference rooms. We first meet him arguing with the waiter and manager of a hotel restaurant about his bill – he was told (or so he says) that one meal per day would be provided for him while he was there giving his talk. The waiter and manager disagree – and the whole thing devolves into a scene that is awkward, funny and sad at the same time.
Things take a turn when he is approached by an older couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) – who want Ansel to get their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) out of a “cult” – known as Faults (no “The”). Ansel tries hard to put them off – but he needs the money. His “manager”, Terry (Jon Gries) wants the money he fronted Ansel, and is starting to send around some intimidating muscle in the form of Mick (Lance Reddick) to collect. He hires some goons, and they kidnap Claire for him – delivering her to a hotel room, while her parents wait in the adjoining room. Ansel sets about “breaking” Claire – who is calm and serene throughout – unless her parents are there that is.
The best scenes in the movie are probably between Orser and Winstead. Winstead has been a promising actress for years now (Death Proof, Smashed, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, etc) without every really having that big breakout role. This isn’t that role either – but Winstead plays it well. But Claire is more of a one note character than Ansel is – although Winstead starts to give her some shading as the movie progresses, and she starts to break. Or does she? From the start, I never really trusted Faults to play it straight with me – or to put it another way, for Claire to play straight with me. Ansel – yes. He may change from scene to scene, but that’s because each scene requires something else from him if he’s going to keep his head above water (if he even wants that). But from the start, there is something off about Claire. She’s too calm and serene – even for a cult member – and she seems to be broken too easily by Ansel. Does he even know what he’s doing anymore? There is a tension between them though – as both try to get the upper hand, without letting the other know that they want it that works quite well.
The rest of the overly complicated plot isn’t really necessary – accept, of course, to provide a few more characters in the film, and get it outside of that hotel room (even if that is where the movie is at its best). The film was written and directed by Riley Stearns (Winsted’s husband_ = and it’s his feature debut after a trio of shorts. It’s a more promising debut than a good one. It shows Stearns has some talent in writing dialogue and characters, and his slightly off-kilter framing works well. Faults isn’t a great movie by any means – but it’s the type of debut that makes me curious what Stearns is going to do next.