Faults, written and directed by Riley Stearns, begins with a front-runner for best opening scene of the year. It introduces us to Ansel Roth, sitting in a hotel restaurant finishing a courtesy meal. He has a voucher to prove he is entitled to it. Thing is… he used up his voucher the night before, and the rules say there’s one meal per person, per stay. He’s had his quota. The restaurant manager calls him on this, but Ansel remains defiant. He claims not to have any money to pay before the manager’s even done telling him the bill. He’s asked to leave, but insists he hasn’t finished his meal. The manager disagrees, citing his empty plate as evidence… so Ansel tips ketchup onto his plate and starts eating it with a spoon. If pettiness hadn’t already been achieved, it certainly escalates here. It’s a very fun introduction, and tells you a lot about Ansel.
Ansel is played by Leland Orser, a perennially great character actor who you may recognise from such titles as Alien: Resurrection, Se7en or, much more recently, The Guest. Faults, like The Guest, is a product of Snoot Films, and has crept modestly onto UK shores, currently available to stream on some services. It’s one of those whip smart little indie gems that appear every year, the kind which make so-called digging in the crates worthwhile. And Orser fully embraces taking top billing for Stearns’ cracker of a movie.
Ansel is an opportunist, a man seemingly without anchor. He won’t just take the complimentary soaps and hand towels from a hotel; he’ll take the batteries from the TV remote as well. He makes a spurious living debunking cults and helping to extract people from mind manipulation techniques. On the heels of a forlornly banal and disastrous seminar (in which he has an altercation with AJ Bowen), he is hired by the parents of wayward Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). His job is to ‘deprogram’ Claire; recently taken in by a cult called Faults. Agreeing to the job out of thinly veiled desperation, Ansel has Claire grabbed from the side of the road and taken to a motel room to begin the process.
Here Faults hunkers down, and the low-budget, small-scale of the production asserts itself. Taking place for the majority in this one location, Stearns relies on his own smartly written script and a clutch of memorable performances to keep his film interesting. Fortunately he is blessed in both regards, and the film’s trim 89 minutes fly by (the older I get, the more stock I seem to place in brevity). Anyone who has seen Smashed from a couple of years ago will know Winstead is an undervalued presence, able to bring serious clout to roles, not to mention some great screen charisma as evidenced in the likes of Death Proof or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. She’s a fine choice here as Claire, keeping the viewer guessing as to who is ‘deprogramming’ whom. And while the meat of Faults sees Orser and Winstead facing off, there are a brace of equally fine talents around them helping to pick up the slack including the likes of Lance Reddick and Nicholas Tucci (Snoot Films are loyal to their actors, evidently) and particularly Chris Ellis and Beth Grant as Claire’s doting parents.
Faults is a sensibly sized debut feature, showcasing Stearns as adept at controlling something beyond the short films that make up his prior resume. There’s a lot of comedy in his film, a lot of it born out of the incompetence of the characters. His framing has a contemporary feel to it, while at the same time he is confident enough in his material to let the work do the talking. Setting aside how the plot eventually works out, picking a victor out of Orser and Winstead here is a very tough call, so lets just say they’re both winners for this one, with the viewer winning most of all. From early on one senses that Claire has the drop on Ansel. Winstead plays her very shrewdly, while Orser is equally impressive at building such a threadbare wreck of a person out of Ansel. He’s a pitiable underdog. It makes their scenes together very entertaining. What plays out is a light, unassuming psychological thriller masked by a parade of comic tomfoolery (much of which is owned by Orser). While, elsewhere, Jon Gries’ against-type extortionist Terry provides Faults with a joyful yet mildly sinister mid-film intermission.
And overall this is a very enjoyable movie, but one that sits comfortably within a certain reach. As such if you’re skipping just below to the score at the bottom, know that the main reservation is in fact enthusiasm. Enthusiasm that Stearns’ best work is likely still ahead of him. The modesty of scale here is perhaps what holds Faults back from greatness, but, for what it is, this is a very tight production, one seriously worth your consideration when you’re cycling through cluttered screens of unfamiliar straight-to-stream choices on a quiet night in.