Summing up Riley Stearns's feature debut, FAULTS, without blowing too many details that are best left discovered for oneself is a tricky prospect. What I can tell you is what it displays an abundance of from its writer/director: confidence.
I read the script about a year ago and it was basically catnip to me. I'd venture that some 75% of the film centers on the dynamic between two characters while confined to one hotel room. It's the type of scenario that leaves a writer nowhere to hide: there's no place for pyrotecnics, no kinetic car chases or action scenes. Every bit of tension has to come from those two characters and the claustrophobia of their location. There's no half-assing the writing here. The characters have to pop, they have to have a clear conflict and when you're limited to a duel of words rather than fisticuffs, the dialogue has to be sharp as a jagged piece of glass.
And then once you get all that right on the page and pull off an engaging read, some poor director has to come along and make it look like more than a filmed stageplay. You can probably think of all of the ways a terrified helmer might add a little extra spice out fear that his audience would become bored. These include: wild and crazy angles, which wouldn't be complete without frantic editing, and on-the-nose scoring to add gravitas to the quiet, subtle dialogue.
Stearns doesn't fall back on any of those crutches. That takes balls, especially on your first film. The fact that FAULTS also has to skillfully mix humor with a lot of intensity and creepiness makes this even more of an achievement. I've seen a lot of films that have attempted to mix tones in this way and it soon becomes apparent that there are a lot of ways to fall on your face. A misplaced joke can destroy tension rather than heighten it. A bad gag at the wrong point has the potential to turn the film goofy right when it can hurt the most. Finding that tone and making sure the actors play within that space is the director's responsibility and Stearns hits the bullseye as surely as if he were Robin Hood.
So if you're tempted to think that a film centered largely on two actors in one room is an "idiot proof" prospect for a director, you need to realize there are probably about fifty ways FAULTS could have gone wrong, even with it starting from an incredibly solid script.
It helps that FAULTS has a very solid cast. Leland Orser plays Ansel, a former cult deprogramming expert whose since fallen on hard times. This is a man at such a low point in his life that he steals not just towels from his hotel room, but the battery that powers his TV remote. Following one of his seminars, he's approached by a couple played by Beth Grant and Chris Ellis. Their daughter Claire has fallen into the clutches of a cult and they believe Ansel is the only one who can save her. Ansel may be at the point in his life where he doesn't give a shit, but he needs money, and deprogramming Claire is an opportunity for him to make enough to clear some pressing debts.
Thus Ansel kidnaps Claire and has her brought to a motel room so that he can spend the next five days psychologically breaking her down and undoing what the cult did to her. Ansel knows how to challenge her beliefs all while weakening Claire's resolve. What we witness is the gradual breaking of Claire, in a very strong performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead also happens to be Stearns's wife, but don't confuse this connection for any sort of nepotism or vanity project. Winstead does very good work in a role that is a lot more challenging than it appears for much of a first viewing. Suffice to say, if Winstead impressed you in diverse roles such as Smashed and Scott Pilgrim you'll probably enjoy seeing her play yet another entirely different sort of character here. (And yes, add me to the chorus that thinks Winstead was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Smashed a few years back.)
As the film is not in wide release, that's probably all I should say about the plot. As seemingly straightforward as the premise is, FAULTS zigs and zags in ways that you won't always see coming. It probably isn't giving anything away to heap praise on how Orser and Winstead gradually evolve their dynamic, allowing for a few shifts in the relationship that aren't even immediately apparent until the script specifically underlines them.
And through all of this, Stearns's steady hand shows. Most of these two-handers are shot with long takes with little camera movement. Occasionally there might be a slow push-in or a well-timed pan, but this doesn't feel like a film where the director went out of his way in leaving the editing room to save him, if need be. Many scenes are given room to breathe, playing out in takes that hold on the performers and invite us to register the subtlety in their performances. The score is modulated similarly, as it's completely absent from many scenes, allowing its limited usage to make much more impact.
At present, FAULTS is still doing the festival circuit. I saw it this past weekend at AFI Fest, though Screen Media Films currently has it scheduled for a March 6, 2015 release to theatres and VOD. If this sort of film appeals to you the way it does to me, I hope you'll check it out.