If Elmore Leonard had written a story about cults, it might resemble Riley Stearns’ debut comedy-thriller Faults. Well, the first half at least. What begins as a hilarious tale concerning a cult expert attempting to “deprogram” a young woman quickly shifts into a contemplative look at faith, exploitation, and skepticism in the face of witnessing the impossible. Don’t sweat the heavy stuff though. Even when Faults gets serious, it manages to maintain its comedic tone. Driven with strong performances and Stearns’ propulsive direction, Faults is a darkly fascinating and biting tale that marks the arrival of a gifted filmmaker.
I don’t remember the last time I saw a funnier entrance to a character than the scene that introduces Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), a washed-up cult and mind-control specialist now reduced to delivering lectures in tiny hotel conference rooms. When we meet Ansel, he’s finishing up his complimentary breakfast in the hotel’s adjoining restaurant. Decked out in a brown suit, brown tie, and bags under his eyes you could fit around a horse’s neck, Ansel is the embodiment of a broken down man. When his waiter refuses to accept his meal voucher, Ansel shows how desperate he truly is – even for a cheap breakfast.
From there we learn how his career took such a sharp decline, causing him to lose his wife, TV show, and reputation. Years ago, Ansel had performed a “deprogramming” of a girl who fell under the control of a cult. This ended tragically, spiraling Ansel into the pit of mental and financial despair. Now he’s living out of his car, stealing what he can from hotels, and deep in debt with his manager, who’s losing his patience by the minute.
After giving his speech in the hotel, Ansel’s approached by an old couple who has lost their daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to a cult called Faults. Initially, Ansel doesn’t want to help them. “Deprogramming” involves a certain amount of, well, kidnapping, and on top of that, Ansel simply doesn’t give a fuck about helping anyone but himself anymore. But the old couple is desperate and willing to pay a lot of money – enough to dig Ansel out of the hole. So he begrudgingly takes the gig.
Leland Orser is probably best known for his bit roles as Liam Neeson’s special forces buddy in the Taken films (he also played the crazy guy in the massage parlor in Se7en). Hopefully his work as Ansel leads him to bigger roles because he gives a highly assured, solid performance that will certainly be career-defining in hindsight. Ansel’s a wounded man grasping for hope, but there’s still some of that seasoned expert in him that shines through during Claire’s “deprogramming.” Ansel knows his stuff, it’s his personal demons that could prevent him from saving this girl and reuniting her with her family.
Once Claire’s “deprogramming” begins, Faults rarely leaves the small hotel room where Ansel has her stored away. In this confined space, the subtle interplay between characters is used for big laughs, but also to show their true colors. Ansel and Claire are joined by her parents and amidst this pressure cooker of desperate people, Claire is the calm eye of the storm. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Claire with a huge degree of confidence, cool, and seductive power. As her “deprogramming” progresses, Ansel is met with experiences that force him to question his beliefs and give himself over to the idea that maybe he hasn’t been in control of his own destiny, which isn’t an easy pill to swallow.
Faults takes a very different look at cults than recent movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice,and The Sacrament. Stearns’ film takes the perspective of an outsider, without examining the actual cult and how it broke down someone like Claire. While not a horror film on the surface, Faults contains the elements and lays them out through its slow-burn storytelling. It leads up to a conclusion that’s all together unexpected. It’s an intriguing film with a message that many may find all too relatable. Destined for indie greatness, Faults is not one to miss.