Faults is many things.
It’s a character study. It’s a thriller. It’s a deeply unsettling horror film. It’s a darker-than-dark comedy that will make you laugh even while you’re glancing over your shoulder to make sure there are no strangers hiding in the shadows. It’s a look at religion, faith, free will, and guilt. It’s a declaration that a major talent — writer/director Riley Stearns — has arrived. It’s an acting showcase for both Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Leland Orser. It’s a film that found success on the festival circuit and then had an all-too brief theatrical release in March. It’s also a film that’s currently available on Netflix. Finally, it’s one of the best films of the year so far.
When we first meet professional cult deprogrammer Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), he is eating dinner in a hotel restaurant and desperately trying to convince his waiter that he has an agreement with management, guaranteeing him free meals while staying at the hotel. After Ansel is kicked out of the restaurant, he then tries to convince the hotel manager that his room is supposed to be free as well. The manager gives Ansel an hour to check out.
As quickly becomes apparent, Ansel is nearly broke and he’s living out of his car. What little money he has, he makes from giving sparsely attended lecture where he literally begs people to pay fifteen dollars to get a copy of his latest book. After his lectures, Ansel is willing to sign his new book at a cost of five dollars per signature.
(At one point, when someone asks Ansel to sign his previous book, Ansel abruptly explains that he no longer signs that book. If you want his five dollar autograph, you have to first pay fifteen dollars to get his new book.)
At one point, Ansel was a minor celebrity with his own talk show but, after a girl he deprogrammed subsequently committed suicide, Ansel’s life fell apart. His latest book is self-published and his former manager, the oddly polite Terry (Jon Gries), claims that Ansel owes him money. Terry’s enforcer, Mick (the always intimidating Lance Reddick), is stalking Ansel from cheap motel to cheap motel.
However, things start to look up for Ansel when he’s approached by Paul (Chris Ellis) and Evelyn (Beth Grant). They explain that their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), has joined a cult known as Faults and is a follower of a mysterious figure named Ira. They ask Ansel to deprogram her. Ansel agrees to do so and charges them $20,000.
After Ansel and two “assistants” literally grab Claire off the street, they take her to a cheap motel where, behind locked doors, Ansel starts to try to deprogram Claire. However, from the start, Ansel discovers that it’s going to be more difficult than he realized.
For one thing, Claire remains calm throughout the whole kidnapping and, even when locked in the shabby motel room, is confident that she is about to “move on” and achieve a higher level of existence. When Paul and Evelyn show up and try to talk to Claire, it turns out that they’re not quite the loving parents that they initially presented themselves as being. Paul, in particular, reveals himself to have a fierce temper and he demands that Claire change into clothes that would be more appropriate for a teenager than for an adult. When Ansel suggests that the overbearing Paul should back off, Paul replies that he “knows” what Ansel truly wants to do with Claire.
Secondly, even as Ansel tries to deprogram Claire, he still has to deal with Terry and Mick. Neither one of them is particularly concerned about whether or not Ansel can pull Claire away from Faults. Instead, Terry just wants his money.
And finally, even as Ansel tries to keep control of the situation, he is personally falling apart. He finds himself having sudden nosebleeds. At one point, his suit spontaneously combusts into flame. (Believe it or not, there is a relatively plausible reason for why this happens but that doesn’t make it even less shocking.) When Ansel falls asleep in the motel room, he subsequently wakes up in his car and has no memory of how he got there.
And through it all, Claire remains a seductive and manipulative enigma. Sometimes she’s cold and in control. Other times, she’s surprisingly vulnerable. Ansel finds himself both attracted to and frightened of Claire. Throughout the film, Ansel insists that he has “free will” but Claire forces him to reconsider that assumption.
Faults is a low-key and disturbing film that is distinguished by a very dark and cynical sense of humor. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is amazing as the mysterious Claire while Leland Orser is wonderfully desperate and surprisingly sympathetic as Ansel. When Faults first started, I was concerned that, since it largely takes place in one cramped motel room, the film would be too stagey to be effective. But director Riley Stearns does amazing work with that one location and, as a result, Faults is one of those rare films that actually gets more intriguing the deeper you get into it.
Faults is currently available on Netflix and you should watch it.