Dr Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) is a disgraced expert in mind control and cult deprogramming. Following a scandal, the cancellation of his TV series and being in hoc to his agent, he trawls around poorly attended speaking engagements, trying to sell his book. When his agent sends a debt collector after him, Ansel is given a looming repayment deadline. Soon afterwards he is approached at an event by the parents of a girl called Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has been indoctrinated into a cult. In need of the money, Ansel agrees to return to his former profession and help them.
Although religious cults have been touched on in great movies in the past such as Midnight Special, The Sacrament and Martha Marcy May Marlene, there have not been (m)any dealing with the deprogramming aspect and liberating a person from the tendrils of cult life. As such, Faults has a very interesting premise, and when it sticks to this area it works very well. Unfortunately, final act detours into more conventionally dramatic territory and the movie somewhat loses its way.
The main issue is that the filmmakers never quite iron out who they want Ansel to be. He is introduced to us in a very comedic manner: penny-pinching in motel rooms and being forcibly ejected from restaurants. And he is meekly under the thumb of his agent. But then, once the deprogramming commences, Ansel shows his professionalism. He is competent, experienced and in full control of the situation. However, for reasons that are not clear, Claire’s parents begin to undermine his authority and once this happens he reverts back to being jittery, timid and easily manipulated.
As far as performances go, it’s a small cast, filled with excellent character actors. Orser is a quintessential oh-it’s-that-guy actor, perhaps most recognisable from Alien: Resurrection, Se7en and the Taken movies. It’s great to see him carry a movie for once, and he is superb. Likewise, Winstead continues to demonstrate what a fantastic actor she is with her layered turn as Claire. Lance Reddick brings gravitas to the supporting role of Mick, and Beth Grant, yet another underrated character actor from the likes of Donnie Darko and No Country for Old Men, is great as Claire’s mother.
There are times when Faults is very strong indeed. Once Ansel agrees to help Claire’s parents, the start of the deprogramming section of the movie is very good. In fact, a more arthouse take on this story might only involve Ansel and Claire in a motel room talking things through, because Orser and Winstead are riveting in this one-on-one. When the rules are set and the boundaries defined, each character tests how much the other will bend. But when the third act takes events toward a more dramatic conclusion, we’re left to wonder what might have been had it remained a character piece.
Despite the great acting, Faults is undone by its flaws. Specifically, a number of plot holes and a denouement that feels underdeveloped. There are also problems with the tone – the movie is too comedic early on, which jars with later events. Finally, character motivations are too opaque and thus without an overarching rationale the movie becomes unsatisfying.
So, while the performances and concept make Faults a very watchable movie to begin with, by the end it feels like first-time feature writer-director Riley Stearns was on the cusp of something very good, but couldn’t quite nail it.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆