Faults is one of the more frustrating experiences of SXSW. It’s by no means a bad film or even a mediocre one. Writer-director Riley Stearns shows promise, but his feature debut never comes together the way it should. The worst that can be said for Faults is that it’s hard not to feel indifferent towards it, despite having two fine lead performances.
One being Leland Orser as Ansel Roth, a washed up expert on mind control. He used to have a television show, a wife and a hit book. Now he goes around promoting his disastrous self-published follow-up novel and tries to con restaurants into giving him free meals. Ansel has hit his lowest, but he’s offered a chance of redemption that he only sees money signs on. A couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) pleads with Roth to “deprogram” their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who hasn’t been herself since joining a cult. She claims she’s never been happier, but her parents want the old her back.
To pay back his manager, Roth agrees to help the couple. He has Claire kidnapped, brought to a motel room and kept there until he can convince her that the cult is using her. The set up for Faults is enticing, mainly because of Orser. He’s excellent as Roth. When he is speaking with Claire, we can see the old Roth, the one that used to be great at what he does. There’s a quiet sadness to Orser’s performance. His life has not gone according to plan at all, and neither does this job.
It’s as if Stearns is punishing Roth for selling out. This movie beats him down, and sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. Like Stearns’s terrific short film, The Cub, this has a dark sense of humor, and at times it doesn’t fit. There’s a death in this movie, and the way it’s played is a little too broad given the situation and the film’s tone leading up to it. The movie takes on a more sinister and surreal atmosphere as it progresses, so when there’s one comical reveal after a character has been killed, it deflates the tension.
The last half of Faults is where it becomes problematic. The slow-burning buildup leads to an unsatisfying payoff. Stearns doesn’t end with a bang nor tries to answer every question, thankfully, but the final reveal doesn’t have any oomph to it. Faults goes exactly where you expect it to, without ever having much to say. Stearns doesn’t need to deconstruct the inner workings of cults or anything like that, but by the end Faults feels pointless. At first it seemed unfair to give the film a knee-jerk reaction. If given more time, maybe it would reveal itself as something more. So far, it hasn’t.
For the most part, this feels like more of an exercise for Stearns than anything else. There’s a cold distance in his direction, but it’s all well-shot and acted. Faults shows he has talent. Don’t doubt that whatever he makes next will leave a bigger impression.
The Upside: Two exceptional performances; promising set up; Michael Ragen’s cinematography
The Downside: A lukewarm second half; lackluster ending; could’ve been more, given the talent involved
On The Side: Deprogramming is a real process that was developed in the mid to late-70s by Ted Patrick.