Faults (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

When asked, during a petty, pathetic altercation with a hotel restaurant manager over a bill, how much money he has, Dr Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is forced to confess: “Nothing – I don’t have anything.”

It’s to this low that Ansel has been reduced. Once a happily married homeowner who wrote the book on sects, cults and mind control and even had his own television show, he has, after a scandal, lost everything, and now travels the hotel lecture circuit, living alone in his car and struggling to shift a second book (Follower: Inside the Mind of the Controlled) that nobody wants to read. And though he preaches the virtues of free will, all his own decisions are determined by a desperate race to pay off sizeable dues to his manager Terry (John Gries) – ‘manager’ being a recurrent word in this film – before Terry’s enforcer Mick (Lance Reddick) stops being so polite about collecting the debt.

So although Ansel does not at first realise it, the arrival of Paul (Chris Ellis) and Evelyn (Beth Grant) is something of a godsend. Desperate to rescue their daughter 28-year-old Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from an emerging cult named Faults, they are willing to pay Ansel a lot of money to ‘deprogramme’ her. Except that, despite having been kidnapped and imprisoned in a motel room, Claire seems unfazed by Ansel’s various overtures – and as Ansel starts to suspect that all is not right about Claire’s relationship with her father, something deeply irrational takes place within the room’s locked doors that will turn his belief system upside down.

Written and directed by Winstead’s husband Riley Stearns, this clautrophobic, mostly two-handed chamber-piece lets Orser and Winstead modulate with subtle precision the shifting ground of power play between them, as the cracks in Ansel’s authority and control begin to show. Like The Sound of My Voice (2011), Red State (2011), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), The East (2013) and The Sacrament (2013) before it, Faults uses the workings of a cult to examine the attractions and repulsions of fundamentalism in a culturally divided, only sometimes rational America – but it also offers a vividly practical demonstration of the way that our thoughts and emotions can be manipulated, tricked and exploited, as though the whole film is dramatising the lecture on mind control which Ansel delivers near its beginning.

What starts as a closely observed and blackly funny study of a flawed character ends as a sly confidence trick movie that, rather than explaining all its mechanics, trusts its viewers to put all the pieces together and work out how the impossible is in fact possible. It is a bold, mannered debut that never quite goes in any of the expected directions. So get initiated – you have nothing to lose.

Anton Bitel