Another Netflix offering. Having garnered some degree of critical acclaim despite its very limited release, here and over on the other side of the Atlantic, Faults piqued my interest. I recognised Leland Orser from my love of E.R., and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is one of those actresses who has always been more capable than the supporting roles she has typically been stuck with. Both of them would have to be knocking things out of the park in order for this kind of two-hander to work. Does Faults have what it takes, or is it very aptly named?
Ansel Roth (Orser) is a disgraced expert on cults and their victims, who has fallen on a multitude of bad times. Owing money to dangerous people and desperate for any kind of success, he agrees to take on the task of deprogramming Claire (Winstead), a member of a shadowy cult dubbed “Faults”. But the job keeps throwing up unpleasant surprises, and soon Ansel isn’t sure just how much control over the situation he actually has.
Faults is a bit of a strange one really. On the one hand, it’s a deadly series examination of cults and the way that they grab a hold of people. But on the other, it’s a story of a man whose situation in life is so beat down and desperate that it approaches black farce in the way that it keeps showing him losing what few precious ounces of self-respect he has left, in a myriad of different ways. From the opening establishment of the character, trying to grift a free five dollar meal out of a restaurant and then giving a seminar on cults to a tiny number of people (while patrons of the hotel swimming pool walk by in the background) it is made clear that Ansel is a man on the edge, having lost everything important to him – wife, career, hopes of fame – long ago. Add in the threats of a former agent now owed money, delivered through the imminently scary musings of Lance Reddick, and you know that Ansel is facing a defining point in his life, more likely to drown than keep his head above water.
Enter Claire, her parents desperate to get her out of a cult named “Faults”, desperate enough to actually hire someone as pathetic as Ansel to “deprogram” her, despite all of the apparent risks. From there Faults takes on the form, mostly, of an intense two-hander, as Orser and Winstead verbally spar back and forth in the hotel room that they end up in, discussing the cult, Winstead’s relationship with them and Ansel’s own deteriorating life. If Faults has a strength, it’s in these interactions, with Orser and Winstead both giving it socks on either side of the central divide.
Orser radiates fear and that sense of teetering on the edge of a breakdown constantly stripped of any kind of dignity, while Winstead’s eerie relaxed nature and quasi-seductive feel in Claire suits the overall aura of an intervention where the main focus isn’t exactly clear. Faults becomes a repeating game of trying to determine “Who wins the scene?”, as we are treated to what amounts to a slow, but almost inevitable collapse in Ansel’s mental state and shifting of control in the dynamic between him and Claire. The claustrophobic direction, be it in the hotel room, the bathroom, Terry’s office or any other locations, gives Faults a stuffy encroaching feel, of people being trapped and not being able to find a way out, like a nightmare that can’t be woken up from.
Claire, as a character, is basically just a cipher I suppose, this being the Ansel show in terms of journeys. Faults wants to ask how much a person can take before they turn on everything they thought they knew about themselves: confronted by Claire, Ansel is inevitably forced to confront many things about himself that are not all that pleasant.As he himself says, when asked by Claire about the name of the cult she is a part of, a “fault is a fracture. It’s a place where pressure builds until it releases”.
But Faults must also be praised for the way in which it breaks up this action. The film keeps you guessing on multiple fronts, in what is a remarkably short running time: Claire’s parents initially seem like homey people who just want their precious baby girl back, but rapidly start assuming the role of something more sinister, Ansel’s agent takes on a persona of greater and greater threat, and Ansel himself is suffering from some bad memories of past mistakes, the legacy of which is about to engulf him completely. Call it visceral or cerebral, but Faults, a film nominally about deprogramming, gets inside your head and makes you heavily question your perception of things: is Claire’s father some kind of paedophile, is Terry as dangerous as he seems, how did Ansel really get to this point in his life? Poor Ansel is swept up in all of this, and Faults naturally takes him on the progression from being the man in charge to being the man floundering around looking for rescue.
The final reveal may not be all that shocking – it seems crass to label it a “twist” ending, as the film builds up to it rather neatly – but is still rather satisfying. Faults is not an M. Night Shyamalan experience, but something much more disturbing and psychological, and the ending reflects this, when some pretences are dropped and others are built up and up. Maybe director Ridley Sterns might have been better served leaving more to the imagination, given a certain way that things went in the last 20 minutes or so, but I can’t say that I had any major problem with actually pulling back the curtain a bit by the conclusion.
Faults, as a cheap indie film, is a great example of what can be done with a limited budget and a good idea. While it has some issues, such as being a bit to obtuse at times (at least one quasi-dream sequence leaves a bad taste in the mouth), it’s still a fine effort from a team that clearly gave a great deal of thought to what they wanted to make, and made some daring choices that I believe paid off pretty well. The cast is strong, and so is the script, but it is in the way that these things, with the intense visual direction, creates a sense of dread, mental fog and double guessing of nearly everything – without going too far I suppose – that Faults really finds its highest point. While it wasn’t big enough to make a major impression on the world of cinema, it still impressed me a fair bit, and it is one I am happy to recommend.
(All images are copyright of Screen Media Films).