Split Image: Stearns’ Debut a Dark Hearted Cult Comedy
The insidious recruitment techniques of religious cults used to be a veritable genre staple, beginning, perhaps, with the fascination surrounding the highly publicized Manson Family murders in the late 1960s. The media sensation resulted in a culturally acknowledged terror reflected in the cinema for decades to come, and one may recall a slew of 1980s titles that cashed in on these cultural fears, with titles like Ticket to Heaven (1981) and Bad Dreams (1988) now languishing in obscurity, despite a variety of notable historical markers, from the Jim Jones’ led mass suicide in 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, to the Branch Davidian and Heaven’s Gate episodes of the 1990s. It appears there may be a minor resurgence in the topic, with Ti West’s recent The Sacrament (2013) recreating the spirit of Jim Jones. Now, Faults, the directorial debut of Riley Stearns, which premiered at SXSW in 2014, seems to be in conversation with the similarly themed 1982 Ted Kotcheff film Split Image (parodied in the bizarro Comedy Central series “Strangers With Candy”), wherein concerned parents have paid a guru to ‘reprogram’ their child for reintegration into society. Stearns’ exercise is simply executed, at first providing us with broadly moderated laughs before degenerating into a sobering, nihilistic portrait of the ease with which insanity transpires.
Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is an expert on cults. Once a noted guru thanks to his successful first book, a cancelled television show, a failed marriage, and now, a second self-financed publication have whittled away the reputed personality to a mere shadow of his former self. Relegated to hawking his new book at hotel chains, Roth is approached by a pair of concerned parents (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis), who claim their 28 year old daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has been brainwashed into joining a new obscure cult simply called Faults. At his wits end and pursued by Mick (Lance Reddick), a man working for his manager, Terry (Jon Gries), who has begun to make threats and ultimatums concerning the money Roth owes, the desperate man takes up their offer. Claire is abruptly yanked and held in a divey motel, the adjoining room occupied by her parents as Roth works his magic. But Claire seems hardly unsettled, and as the process begins, Roth begins to be more and more alarmed at the behavior of her father. Yet, he is in desperate need of their money.
Character actor Leland Orser manages to be quite the entertaining lead as the down on his luck cult whisperer. For many years a peripheral yet noticeable presence in many a mainstream feature (Alien: Resurrection; Saving Private Ryan; the Taken franchise), Orser takes center stage as the sweaty, anxious ball of despair. It’s perhaps worth noting that several producers of last year’s The Guest, in which Orser had an uncustomarily notable supporting role, are behind Faults.
Other supporting players from The Guest also make an appearance, including the formidable Lance Reddick, and a cameo from AJ Bowen. Star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has appeared in her fair share of mainstream features, has a more complicated role, and her fluctuating dynamic with Orser positions the film into a generally successful two-handed rapport. Things get complicated quickly, our only reprieve from the gloomy motel rooms provided by the tangential presence of Jon Gries, which doesn’t feel all that necessary. Considering Roth’s unstable financial situation, one of the film’s twists doesn’t seem all that surprising, especially with Winstead (who is also on hand as producer, having done so with Stearns’ celebrated short film, Cub) explaining the framework of Faults, a metaphor for weak points in one’s constitution allowing for positive change or growth as a positive result. More often than not deviously entertaining, beginning with its ridiculous opening sequences, Faults provides newcomer Stearns with a fascinating first calling card.