I’ve never been in a cult. Or at least I don’t think so. But I can see why people gravitate to them. They prey on people searching for answers in unconventional places. They live on the backs charismatic leaders. But what about the people affected by them and furthermore, the people tasked with pulling the converted back into the real world?
With his first feature film, writer/director Riley Steams tries to examine the phenomenon via a tense and gripping thriller about the world of cult deprogramming. Built on the back of two exceptional performances, Faults rises above some rookie mistakes to create a film of uncomfortable intrigue and genuine tension.
Things have not gone well for Ansel (Leland Orser), an expert on removing people from the grip of cults. Since the fall of Jim Jones and the Manson family, his star has faded. Nobody is buying his book, he does speaking engagements at crappy hotels and lives in his car. After a particularly painful event, a concerned mother and father (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) hire him to bring their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), back from the grip of a renegade church.
At its best, Faults is a tension filled affair that brims with Cohen Brothers style black comedy and genuine intrigue. The story is well researched and writer/director Riley Steams navigates the change in tone from humor to drama with skill and tact. There’s also a number of standout scenes including a bathroom moment that brims with genuine tension. I’ll admit, I had a couple of “hide your eyes in anticipation” moments.
And at its weakest, it comes off like a well-made student film. Long shots of Ansel and Claire talking go on far too long, there’s the occasional heavy handed metaphor and some of the shots scream, “I’m an indie film” instead of serving the story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was amateurish but it’s clear this is Steam’s first time at the full length rodeo.
That said, 90% of the film’s missteps are easily covered by two standout performances by Orser and Winstead. The character of Ansel is pitiful yet admirable in his genuine desire to help Claire. He perfectly captures the energy of a bumbling yet earnest failure trying to regain relevancy. And as he devolves, his performance become richer and more intense. Outstanding work.
As the Linda Blair to Orser’s Father Karras, Winstead is impressive as the ever changing victim of her cultish devotion. While predictable, both characters deliver their arcs with conviction as the film delves deeper into the deprogramming. Winstead is also adept at maintaining poise as Ansel unravels. She’s unreliable enough to hold our interest.
Sprinkle in a sparse score and a solid supporting cast, Faults examines the cult phenomenon with style and bite. Choosing the POV of a failed healer trying for one last stab at redemption was a smart, brave decision. Watching creepy people in cloaks chanting would have been an obvious and far less interesting choice. Despite some trips and hiccups, Faults aims high and hits the mark nearly every single time. An excellent first feature from a director I’m eager to see more from.