Directed by Riley Stearns
A sad, sad man attempts to deprogram a cult member in Faults, a film that accomplishes a lot over the course of a few nights in a small motel room. He is Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), and the subject of his interrogation is Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Pretty quickly the power dynamics shift, and Ansel is forced to investigate his own low feelings of self worth and then his entire worldview.
This is a comedy without a lot of jokes. Instead it’s the nature of these strange, delirious characters and a combination of their pure conviction and desperation that makes the film a comedy. Ansel, for example, has made a career on debunking mind control techniques, and yet it turns out he’s not so far from the type of personality who could so easily succumb to cult behavior.
He’s a desperate man, pathetic even, when we first meet him, and it’s not hard to imagine how his dissatisfaction (and even suicidal tendencies) will challenge his own confidence as he goes toe to toe with Claire, frighteningly stoic in her own right. In their battle of… wits (?) there is no room for doubt, but she will identify and hone in on that doubt to exploit it to her own benefit.
Ansel is a good example of how no one is what they seem in this film. There is some deception at play, both dramatic and comic, but in his case he believes he is what he is, at least at the start. He clings to tangible evidence that he is an accomplished man with an accomplished track record. More recent failings have eroded that confidence, but he deludes himself into believing that these are just bumps in the road.
Ansel is comically sad as the film opens, perhaps the almost literal personification of insecurity. In Claire, then, we have the personification of serenity. He pokes and prods at her because it is in his nature (and in his best interests financially) to investigate these things. Like a paranoid conspiracy theorist he is programed to suspect things which claim to offer absolute peace. He just doesn’t see how that’s possible.
In these two characters we see how cult behavior (whether literal cults or something more subtle) may fester. Dissatisfaction in a certain type of person breeds the search for help. To look for help is a point of strength, but that search can often lead you astray. When you are as unhappy as Ansel, for example, it turns out you’re open to receiving help from the most suspicious sources. People who claim to have all the answers will of course appear enticing to those who feel they have none.
And that’s the power of something resembling a cult, isn’t it? Like Charles Manson this preys on people open to receiving help who similarly believe they are so lost. It’s not that there’s this one rough patch in their life but rather that everything is terrible. Instead of renovating the kitchen they tear the entire house down.
Near the end of the film we see how two other characters, having accomplished a goal in the name of their ‘leader,’ graduate to their next level, which involves committing suicide. It’s a trope of cult behavior, at least as seen in movies and in the media (though perhaps just the most sensational element of something which might be more nuanced in reality, I don’t know). They retain absolute confidence in their belief system until the very end. There is no room for doubt and because of their imminent deaths there will never be an opportunity to find evidence that disproves what they currently believe.
I recently read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which turned into the 2007 film directed by Sean Penn. It’s a fascinating story (and a quick read), about a young man named Christopher McCandless who after graduating college cut off all contact with his family, donated the $24,000 in his savings account to charity, and went out in search of pure experience.
He hitchhiked throughout much of the western half of the United States, kayaked into Mexico, worked odd jobs anywhere from a grain factory to a McDonald’s, and then worked up to what would be his last “great adventure,” living off the land in Alaska. After a few months and a seasonal rushing river that couldn’t be crossed, he died of starvation, at 24 years old.
He is a martyr for some and a fool for others, and that’s what makes him such a fascinating ‘character.’ We see in him some degree of what we see or don’t see in ourselves. He’s a blank slate to whom we assign our own value. McCandless is romanticized by so many because of his will to live and forsake the things so many of us would have a hard time doing away with. He had a code, and he abided by it.
At the same time much of his journey seems to have been fueled in part by unresolved and unchecked interpersonal issues with his family. That part of the story isn’t so romantic, especially as it appears he would so willingly cut off further personal relationships before they developed into anything substantial. He was so eager to live on his own, and while it’s easy to romanticize his writings and photographs, those are just snapshots of the real person. Who knows how content or tortured he really was in private, especially living alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
But the point of this is that he died too young to really experience life in middle and old age. It’s natural for a young person to be stubborn, idealistic and to have the energy to pursue the things about which they are stubborn and idealistic. Maybe McCandless as an older man would have settled down, found a job that that his younger self would’ve loathed, gotten a mortgage, who knows. Maybe not, but again we don’t know. Because he died so young his story became so widely known, and his life and journey ended with as much supposed purity of spirit as it began. There was no time for it to dwindle down into routine or mundanity.
Or you could just look at the Dark Knight quote, “you either die the hero or live long enough to become the villain.”
Life isn’t ever one thing, right? So the conviction some of these characters in Faults has comes from giving no time to the rebuttal. They are so eager for answers, they find them, and then we’re led to believe they pull the cord before a different part of their brain flares up with questions.
Up Next: Into the Wild (2007), The Pledge (2001), Free Solo (2018)