Review: While not being the best in his filmography, Riley Stearns’ “Faults” still has many thematic and tonal beats that work well for this particular film critic. Dry as hell and dark in its comedy, “Faults” is a refreshing look at the workings of cults and those inside them.
Fewer directors have been faster risers on my personal list in 2022 than Riley Stearns. Although he only directed one film this year (the delightfully sadistic and off-kilter “Dual”), I was actually unaware that I had previously seen and liked one of his breakout films “The Art of Self-Defense.” It makes sense, too, that they both come from the same creative mind with their largely bleak and dry comedic tones and cult-like thematic beats. I figured why not take the time to finish Stearns’ oeuvre with his debut feature “Faults” – a film that clearly births every stylistic impulse and interest Stearns repeatedly has worked with since its release.
Your mileage may very with the black comedy genre that Riley Stearns constantly works in for every outing. The rigidity of his characters are certainly going to turn some viewers off. I was 19 years old when I first watched “The Art of Self-Defense” – a fledgling cinephile just learning the ropes with contemporary genre masters like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. I was learning about how to react to tone and imagery as an attentive viewer. That film drew me in in a way I couldn’t quite understand. To this day, his films all work that way with me.
Maybe it’s because I’m a rather dark and dreary-eyed film goer generally. I prefer insular films more than spectacle, films that make you uneasy than ones that make you joyful. There’s a tonal beat with each of Riley Stearns’ offerings that connect with me and so I was expecting “Faults” to offer that same palette of ideas and feelings.
It probably wasn’t best to start with “The Art of Self-Defense” and “Dual” and then return to “Faults” and expect the same level of craftsmanship and tidiness. After all, “Faults” feels more like a cookie cutter version of the narrative Stearns has perfected since this release, but there’s still so much to the foundation of this film that makes up for any story shortcomings.
The film centers on Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) and his less-than-successful front as a famous mind control expert and cult-breaker. Ansel’s latest book hasn’t been selling all too well. In fact, he takes up small speaking gigs whenever possible to help sell even a couple books. His bet-on-himself, self-publication attempt hasn’t gone as planned and he owes his lender quite a bit of cash.
All seems lost until he meets the father and mother of Claire, a rebellious girl that’s run off to join in a mysterious new cult called Faults. When Ansel is offered the money he needs to pay off his manager, he attempts to break the hold this new cult has on Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Perhaps the greatest narrative strength in “Faults” is that it gives you just enough information to understand the world you’ve been put into, without giving you every answer. The lives of Claire and her family are rightfully ambiguous, and it makes you question what you’re watching throughout the film’s lean 90 minute runtime.
The two lead performers, Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, are both hypnotically stale and play off each other’s screen presence quite nicely. The main setting for ‘Faults” is a two bedroom motel – which significantly adds to the dry style Stearns likes to incorporate. Each shot is meticulous and purposefully still to let the drama work its way through your veins.
It’s a solid film. I just wish I had seen it before his two more recent efforts because I think I just find those premises much more engaging and richer with ideas. They have cartoonish ideas that help elevate a film that plays it so straight. It also helps that Jesse Eisenberg and Karen Gillan are performers I have more baggage with, which makes watching them in Stearns’ universe more unique and inviting.
But overall, “Faults” is par for the course for Riley Stearns. It has many of the thematic and tonal beats that he’s dove deeper into with each film that passes. It doesn’t nearly scratch every itch that his other two films do, but I still wound up being enthralled with the story and world he builds within the beige walls of those motel rooms. I imagine he’ll keep adventuring further and further out of them with each feature he directs.