Sometimes a face is enough to anchor a movie. In writer-director Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth, Elisabeth Moss plays Catherine, a young city-dweller who, after recently suffering both her father's death by suicide and a crushing breakup, treks to the country to spend a week with her best friend, Ginny (Katherine Waterston). We're not sure, at first, if Ginny is Catherine's closest ally or her most threatening saboteur. But either way, the trauma Catherine has endured is bound to have consequences. Moss leads us, gently, through Catherine's creeping descent into what we all-too-casually call madness. Almost everything she is feeling can be read in Moss's eyes: Unnervingly matte or shining with blank, eerie joy, they're the windows to a soul that's clearly coming apart at the seams.
Catherine's the woman who shows up to a party in smeared lipstick, saying and doing strange things, deeply uncomfortable with making chitchat over plastic cups full of overly acidic wine. She's a woman we can relate to, though definitely not one we want to be. Yet Queen of Earth is also a semi-comedy, often funny in an intentionally bleak way.
That isn't to say Perry doesn't take his lead character, or her intense pain, seriously. But he also knows the power of a deeply pleasurable film cliché: It's the sort of movie that, had it actually been released in the Seventies, would have been passed off as throwaway drive-in fare -- you might have gone to it with a bunch of friends on a lark, only to find its deep chilliness following you home in the night.