“Fault is a fracture. It’s a place where pressure builds until it releases.” Ansel Roth
Faults (written and directed by Riley Stearns) opens with one of the best cinematic character expositions I’ve seen in a long time. Our flawed, and down on his luck ‘hero’ Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), once a world renowned expert on cult behaviours, and the deprogramming of their victims, now can’t even afford to pay for his breakfast, or the hotel he’s staying at.
In his head he’s an important figure, a man worthy of respect, but his actions reflect a different story. We first meet Ansel eating breakfast at a cheap diner. He’s approached by the manager and informed that his coupon has already been used, and he owes the restaurant $4. Ansel doesn’t have that kind of money and a scuffle ensues. After he’s kicked out the restaurant manager tells Ansel that he saw him taking the coupon from the trash.
In terms of tone, the opening sequence in Faults is reminiscent of The Office, or any other self deprecating narrative about a middle aged man struggling to deal with the realities of his life choices. There’s a touch of Falling Down too, but Ansel isn’t a man to fight back, he’s passive, and he lets the world walk all over him.
Faults and its Penniless Hero
Ansel is currently touring his new book to small audiences, people who clearly don’t care about him, or what he has to say. There’s a pettiness to Ansel, and a desperation that’s clear to see – he’s trying to peddle his book for $15 with an extra $5 tacked on for a signed copy. He’s a man at the lowest point in his career, and his life.
Things take a turn for the better when he meets an old couple (Chris Ellis, Beth Grant), who need help rescuing their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s joined a cult and her family have no idea how to save her. Ansel is reluctant to offer his assistance until the old couple, after knocking on the car window where he’s sleeping, offer to buy him breakfast. His price is low, but he’s also hungry and needs must.
Faults Mercurial Narrative
From there Faults takes some unusual turns. Ansel is informed by his manager that he’s dropping him, and that he must repay the advance for his book. This forces Ansel to take the job and attempt to snatch Claire from the clutches of the cult – a job he seems pathetically overwhelmed by.
Ansel’s story is a depressing one, and his apparent knowledge of cult behaviours seems limited, if not falsified. In order to ‘save’ Claire, he kidnaps her, takes her to a motel room, and imprisons her there. The aim is to remove her from her surroundings, and give her a healthy dose of perspective.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s (director Riley Stearns’ wife) performance lends the film a gravity, and a touch of realism, that was
missing from the opening sequences. In fact Faults effortlessly segues from a dark comedy about a depressed man, to a chilling thriller about the nature of abuse, and the way that charismatic individuals can gaslight, and confuse others in order to get their own way.
This is a clever narrative framing device, and writer/director Riley Stearns uses the form of his film to reflect the changing perspective and experiences of his protagonist, Ansel. As audience members we’re never sure what to expect next, and our perspectives mirror Ansel’s; things get more confusing as the film moves towards its chaotic third act.
Excellent Performances from Orser and Winstead
Leland Orser gives Ansel a barely concealed sense of rage, he’s a man experiencing what he perceives as great injustices, and he can’t understand why the world doesn’t acknowledge (or even see) his greatness. Mary Elizabeth Winstead provides Claire with a depth and secrecy that Ansel will never understand or tap into. She’s an enigma and Ansel is too small minded, and too petty and wrapped up in his own unhappiness, to be rational or open minded.
Claire’s parents are similarly confusing, and their behaviour is difficult to understand or relate to. Sometimes they are the epitome of loving parents, and at other points they’re abusive, especially towards poor Ansel. All of these forces in Ansel’s life put him down, they denigrate his experiences, and Ansel, like the cult members he’s tried to help, is fractured by external pressures.
Ansel’s rage and his impotence eventually lead to cathartic moments, but they’re experiences that still don’t belong to him. He’s a hopeless man, constantly on the verge of breaking down, and his life is in pieces. Everyone and everything leaves him – his wife, his manager, and his career. It seems that there’s something unlovable in Ansel, something that he’ll never fix.
Character Driven Story
For me Faults stands out for its character driven narrative. Unfortunately its story is far too similar to Holy Smoke to be considered original, but Ansel’s experiences lend the film an interesting sense of pathos. His choices are reflected in the changing genre tropes of the film itself, but it becomes clear as the film progresses that it’s really Claire whose in charge.
Riley Stearns’ feature debut is pulpy, confident, and intriguing and the characters make it stand out from other indie thrillers in the same ilk. Faults retains a sense of claustrophobia through its limited use of setting, but it finds a bigger narrative, and an interesting story, in the places it takes its characters. The cinematography lavishes the film with bleak, and washed out colours, and the mise en scene reflects old ’70s thrillers. It’s a movie about a man who lost his place in the world, and the irony in where he found it again.
Have you seen Faults? Let me know your thoughts with a comment below.