2015 - 89 minutes
Directed by: Riley Stearns
Written by: Riley Stearns
Starring: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Beth Grant, Chris Ellis, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick
You’ve likely seen Leland Orser in something, or several things, even if you don’t immediately recognize his name. Perhaps best known for an intense moment in Seven, the character actor has worked consistently for more than two decades but is rarely given a meaty role. In Faults, Orser appears in nearly every scene and manages to be a commanding presence while skillfully and subtly inspiring compassion for a man that’s equal parts desperate and pathetic.
Orser is Ansel, an authority on cults and the psychology of those who fall under their influence. After a failed marriage and failed sophomore book that has left him in dire financial straits, he gives lectures in small hotel conference rooms for a free room and complimentary meal. At one of these uninspired speaking engagements Ansel is approached by Evelyn and Paul (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis), who want to rescue their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from the clutches of a cult called Faults. Agreeing to kidnap and deprogram Claire largely to clear his substantial debt with manager Terry (Jon Gries), Ansel matches wits with the wayward girl in a motel room, hoping to break her down and reverse the cult’s spell over the course of five days.
Based on what we know of Ansel leading up to the intervention, prospects of success aren’t good. Writer/director Riley Stearns establishes rock bottom beautifully in the film’s opening moments. Ansel sits alone in a hotel greasy spoon and attempts to pay for his meal with an expired voucher. The situation escalates and Ansel doesn’t back down, unafraid of confrontation or humiliation. After that perfect moment, the misery is laid on a bit thick when the fallen guru argues over a free room and urges the few people at his lecture to buy a book for $15, which he’ll sign for an extra $5.
After two hired guns help abduct Claire, the action shifts to the dingy motel where Ansel promises her she can go wherever she pleases after five days of conversation with him and her parents, who are holed up in the adjoining room. At first disoriented – what kidnapping victim wouldn’t be? – Claire quickly settles into a comfort zone, appearing lucid. Despite his foibles, Ansel proves capable as well, and is more than just a collection of self-help hokum.
Orser and Winstead play off each other expertly, he occasionally allowing nervousness to take over, and she self-assured in the cult’s thoughts on “next level” existence, even if she admits much of her beliefs are unexplainable. Within the interplay it’s not always clear who’s exercising more influence over their challenger. The two actors carry much of the movie in two-handed scenes and they’re always engaging.
While the threat from Terry and his debt-collecting goon (Lance Reddick) help sustain momentum and give Ansel something to be constantly stressed over, the side action serves mainly to fill in Ansel’s backstory and feels extraneous. Yes, Ansel is a slave to money and the ways of a cruel world – something cults pretend to shun, but threats of violence and envelopes filled with cash don’t jive with the provocations and twists Stearns has in mind. Gries as the effeminate lender and Reddick as his deep-voiced muscle are frivolous, where the rest of the film’s comedy is not nearly as broad.
Faults is best when teasing the unpredictability in the evolution of Ansel and Claire’s relationship and their influence over each other. Thankfully, that makes up a majority of the movie and it’s paid off in an extraordinary, yet satisfying, way that doesn’t feel like a cheap cheat.