Faults is a wonderfully acted and expertly shot film that seamlessly oscillates between black comedy and psychological thriller. As you get wrapped up in the drama of a faulty cult expert and the woman he is trying to deprogram, questions of the true meaning of freedom, free-will, self, and control are quietly implied. The uncomfortable, unsettling tone is the true focus of this indie character piece, rather than the unoriginal plot.
Author, former talk show host, and one of the foremost experts on mind control and cults, Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is one small step from rock bottom. Barely subsisting off of sparsely attended seminars held in mediocre motels and pimping out his second book, Ansel seems a shell of a man who no longer cares or has real interest in his subject of study. Since his only concern is figuring out where his next meal is coming from and how to pay off his manager who leant the financing for his most recent book, Ansel reluctantly agrees to deprogram a woman, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has become ensnared by a group calling themselves “Faults.” This involves kidnapping her and spending five days locked in a motel room attempting to help Claire rediscover herself.
The drab, muted colors of every costume and background, and the hint of early 1980s mundanity, contribute to the uneasy tone of this unusual situation. Who knew crappy motel room décor (complete with wood paneling) and dirty bathrooms could be so beautiful? The composition in each scene is well thought out, but not in an obsessively meticulous, quirky way like Wes Anderson’s work. A characteristic of good first-time feature directors is the basic lessons learned in film school are fresh in their minds. Each scene has layers, with each character, prop, and shadow placed with purpose.
An uncomfortable, unspoken tension exists between each of the characters. They are all antagonists without Ansel realizing it, with each person, decision, and situation orchestrated to demonstrate his complete lack of control over his work and his life. Everything he tries to do falls apart, and while these situations are unique, everyone can relate to having a bad month or bad year where noting goes your way. It’s like if Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993) just kept everything bottled up inside.
Veteran character actor Orser demonstrates his range and cements his ability to lead a film. He gives a potentially one-dimesonal character (down-on-his-luck-guy) depth and subtlety. Ansel changes and evolves throughout the story with each new challenge and as the pieces of his past are revealed. The movie never really asks us to hate or feel sorry for him. Is he an asshole; is he really an expert; does he actually care about what happens to this family? None of these questions matter because you are too busy watching the drama unfold, and, along with Ansel, start to wonder what the hell is really happening. This is one of the qualities for a good independent film, they provide a refreshing break from blatant character tropes dictating an audience’s reactions, rather than letting you come to your own conclusions.