Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), shaken by her father’s suicide and a bad break-up, spends summer with her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) and spirals into delusion and despair. She feels tormented by Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s casual lover, but remembers how Virginia felt the same about her boyfried James (Kentucker Audley).
"I could murder you right now and no-one would know anything about it," whispers Catherine to a random drunk guy she’s found passed out near her friend’s summer house. The line resonates through the movie, either as foreshadowing or a psychological red herring. A paradox of manic depression is that Catherine is at once emotionally fragile and terrifyingly strong-willed. She’s also acutely uncomfortable to be around, yet impossible to look away from.
This is spellbinding, awards-quality work from Elisabeth Moss.
Writer-director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) crafts this haunting, affecting psycho-drama around spellbinding, awards-quality work from Elisabeth Moss as Catherine – with Katherine Waterston matching her subtlety in less-showy, no-less powerful support as the friend only Catherine is allowed to call Ginny. Moss’s scornful speech (which begins "You fucking animal, you unrepentant piece of shit...") to a quietly cruel interloper (Patrick Fugit) ought to become a much-quoted audition piece on a par with "coulda been a contender" and "Say hello to my leetle friend". Much of the film depends on long looks to camera and flickers of expression, while the backstory of a troubled friendship is filled in only partially.
This small, nuanced story evokes art film classics like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Robert Altman’s 3 Women with its story of two women who love and hate (and sometimes become) each other near water, but Perry also draws a lot on the mood, pacing, music and look of 1970s horror cinema. The calmly eerie house-by-the-lake setting exactly resembles the places where terrible things happen to women in Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, The Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave, and a climactic party freak-out shifts into full-on terror with ghoul-like guests – making the point that a few wrong words can make being ordinarily miserable feel like being trapped in a nightmare movie.
You have to be in the right mood for it, but this is one of the season’s finest films.