When we first meet Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) in Riley Stearns’ Faults, he’s nothing short of pathetic: the restaurant manager at the hotel in which he is staying catches him trying to use a previously cashed food voucher to pay for another meal. The manager asks him to leave and Roth refuses, saying he hasn’t finished eating and pouring a puddle of ketchup on his plate to prove it. He is thrown out, right in front of the sign advertising his talk on deprogramming cult members — at which he sells copies of his book, autographed for an additional five dollars (not his big book, by the way; the rights to that one are owned by his ex-wife).
Yes, Roth is a sad case now, but it wasn’t always like this: he was once a top expert and best-selling author on the deprogramming circuit, until one of his cases — in which he seized a young woman and tried to deprogram her — ended in tragedy. Now Roth’s career is in a tailspin, his marriage is history, he’s dead broke and he owes a lot of money to his abusive manager (Jon Gries), whose disarming right-hand man (Lance Reddick) is on hand to collect. His only chance at salvation may be the kidnapping and deprogramming of a woman named Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose parents hire Roth to save her from a cult called Faults.
From that set-up, Stearns — making his feature writing and directing debut after several well-received shorts — spins a film impressive in its ability to seamlessly shift tones, get the most out of its bare-bones setting and provide two hauntingly compelling characters from which Orser and Winstead both eke out career-best performances. Orser, a well-traveled character actor who has turned up in everything from ER to the Taken film franchise, inhabits every inch of Roth with a complex, detailed portrayal that shows him at the outset as a weak, shattered soul and yet, as he dives into the case of Claire, imbues him with a steady authority that indicates this was once a smart man who knew his business.
That business, of course, is a sketchy one: kidnapping people who have joined cults of their own free will is not exactly a legally valid option. In Claire, Winstead puts her pulpy B-movie past even further in the rearview mirror following her tremendous turn in Smashed a few years back. Claire is calm, seemingly rational and clearly in control, even if she seems detached and listening to a tune that no one else can hear. But the fact that the tables have turned becomes evident as Roth’s deprogramming methods reveal him to be the insecure shell guided by forces he cannot restrain, while Claire is steering her own destiny despite the ham-handed attempts of her creepy, domineering father (Chris Ellis) and passive, zombie-like mother (Beth Grant).
Winstead (who also produced the film) plays off all of them wonderfully, but the best is reserved for the scenes between her and Orser. Stearns shoots most of the movie in a drab motel room (circa late ‘70s/early ‘80s) but gets an amazing flexibility and even beauty out of the potentially depressing locale. He and cinematographer Michael Ragen keep the camera moving in fluid and unobtrusive ways, shooting the actors from offbeat angles that are both intimate and unsettling. That plays well into the film’s latter third, which takes a turn — not a sharp one, but still — into the surreal and possibly even the supernatural. Stearns masterful blend of Coen-like black comedy and dark-hued drama yields to a different, eerier tone in the final scenes, one which may leave some audience members caught off-guard and confused but which springs organically from what has come before.
And that’s where Faults is strongest: everything about this film feels hand-crafted and true, from the textures of that damned motel room to the sly character wrinkles given even to the supporting players from Gries and Reddick on down. It’s a two-hander for sure — and what a pair Orser and Winstead make — but Stearns and company make us believe in the world surrounding these people and the multitudes they may or may not hold within. Whether or not we ever find out the true nature of the Faults cult is irrelevant; what’s more provocative is that there may be a little bit of Faults in us all.