Riley Stearn’s debut feature Faults is an interesting beast, part-Comedy, part-Horror, and near scareless – but not to the detriment of it’s content. Although it’s not without it’s own faults it’s an assured debut that hints at great things to come. I’ve read a fair bit about Faults since it’s ridiculously positive reception at this year’s SXSW and was grateful for the opportunity to finally check it out – I have to say it was definitely not what I was expecting.
Faults follows Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), a formerly respected expert in cults who’s down on his luck. He’s lost his family and his home, his latest book isn’t selling, and he’s broke – we even open on him trying to con his way out of paying $4.75 for breakfast. This is the portrait of a man defeated, the whole affair made more depressing by the fact that, as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Ansel clearly does know what he’s talking about. He is an expert with good reason, and is held back only by his personal flaws. Because his book hasn’t sold he currently owes his agent a bunch of money that he doesn’t have. Begrudgingly, he takes on the task of ‘deprogramming’ Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has become indoctrinated into the cult Faults, in an attempt to pay off his debts.
Faults is, at its core, the proto-typical cult, exacerbating individual ‘faults’ while promising an impossible offer of release from these flaws. The film features an interesting commentary on freedom of choice that’s a pleasant break from other cult features that always seem to tie this to some sort of tangible higher power, bringing God and questions of the legitimacy of religion into the picture that always threatens to turn everything into religious propaganda. Things take a turn but I don’t want to spoil any of it; if you’re interested, you owe it to yourself to go in blind but be wary, it gets quite dark very fast.
With it’s solid performances and tight script Faults is a very controlled and self-assured debut. To be honest it may be a little too controlled, at least for my liking. I prefer my films to be a little rough around the edges and take more risks. For me, Faults stuck a little bit to close to the cinematic rulebook, not structurally but physically. Every shot felt way too measured, especially in the few sequences where shots weren’t stable – the shaking of the camera when Ansel had a breakdown, for instance, was rather minor in comparison to that of it’s contemporaries, and came across as a little inauthentic – and this sometimes made the film come across as though it was lacking a little life. In spite of these ‘flaws’ (and I hesitate to really call them that because it all comes down to my personal taste and they’re rather nitpicky), the film is still a pretty fascinating look at freedom of choice, or lack thereof, even in the lives of people who are supposedly completely ‘free’. The cinematography isn’t all bad either – some of the framing is pretty spectacular and nuanced, especially the regular backlighting of Claire’s face that painted her as some sort of angelic figure, and the framing throughout is something special.
While talks of it being terrifying have been highly exaggerated, Faults is a fun and often amusing ride that is worthy of your attention. If I had to place this in the modern “cults” canon, it’s far better than Sound of My Voice, hovers somewhere in-between Red State and Martha Marcy May Marlene, and slightly below Ti West’s vastly underappreciated the Sacrament – which, by coincidence, also features a performance from AJ Bowen – and Ben Wheatley’s fantastic Kill List. On the strength of Faults I’m excited to check out what Riley Stearns comes up with next, it’ll be great to see him break further from the shackles of traditional filmmaking and come out with something a little more rough and raw. For now though, Faults is an admirable debut and a worthy addition into the modern slew of cult-centred flicks and unconventional modern Horror films.
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