If he weren’t a published expert at talking people out of cults, Ansel (Leland Orser) would be an obvious candidate for joining one. The beaten and bedraggled subject of Riley Stearns's mordantly funny first feature, he roams the jaundiced purgatory of Southern California, leveraging sparsely attended seminars to hawk his terrible new book about the virtues of free will. Ansel may not be a con man—Orser’s indelible turn elevates the character’s desperation into its own sad brand of sincerity—but Faults nevertheless delights in questioning the value of his product.
Faults introduces Ansel deep in the pockets of some very scary people, far too broke to ignore the insistent couple (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) who offer him $20,000 to kidnap their daughter from a doomsday cult and deprogram her of its doctrine. Reluctantly agreeing to help, Ansel snatches Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a grocery-store parking lot, locks her in a dank motel room and begins the five-day process of restoring her to her old self. Spoiler alert: Things don’t go according to plan.
A tense two-handed dark comedy prone to feverish inflections of Lynchian madness, Stearns’s film feels as fluid and shifting as Claire herself, its tone following the lead set by Winstead's performance. Winstead is one of the most intuitive actors of her generation, and though her impressive range is easy to spot, it’s her elasticity that makes her so rewarding to watch. Whether she’s playing a blue-haired dream girl or an alcoholic schoolteacher, each of her roles feels convincingly equidistant from a mutual core, lending them all a shared sense of truth. Claire allows Winstead to weaponize that remarkable plasticity; as the actor jumps from wounded victim to defiant believer at the drop of a hat, it becomes increasingly clear that Faults (directed by Winstead’s husband and biggest fan) has been custom-fit for her talents.
Could it be that Claire’s cult is actually communing with God? As Stearns’s camera constantly (and almost imperceptibly) tightens in on the detained woman, the truth of the matter becomes less relevant than her ability to manipulate our understanding of it. Stearns saddles himself with a touch more plot than he needs, and some of the film’s late-game twists are more satisfying than others, but Faults never loses sight of the one thing Ansel can’t see: Free will may come cheap, but most people still can’t afford it.
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