Elisabeth Moss, the Newly Crowned Scream Queen

The opening shots of Queen of Earth are of a face in the middle of a wrenched sob, with tears streaming down from two murky pools of black eyeliner. The face, though nearly unrecognizable, belongs to Elisabeth Moss, and the film may be the best showcase for her acting gifts yet.

The film, the latest from indie auteur Alex Ross Perry, is a psychological horror in the vein of classics like Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion. The plot is quite simple: after Moss’s Catherine suffers a one-two punch of personal tragedy, she escapes to her old friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) cabin for seclusion and quiet, only to steadily go completely insane. Watching it, I found myself pinned to the edge of my seat, waiting anxiously for a manifestation of violence or horror that never seemed to appear. It’s best summed up with what Moss said at a Q&A following the film’s premiere at the MoMA, when she called the film “a nightmarish experience.”

Moss has of course been in the public conscious for years as Peggy, the indomitably witty foil to Don Draper in each season of Mad Men, a seven season-long performance that earned her six Emmy nominations. But as Catherine, the privileged New Yorker who begins a slow descent into madness, Moss presents a previously unseen side of herself. Where many of her performances have been marked by compassion and warmth, playing Catherine was what Moss hilariously described as “super creepy and weird.”

“Playing her was walking a balance of depression,” she continued, “seeing depression as a problem, and seeing depression as a sickness.” Her performance is one that dwells on what she called “an entitlement to misery,” where those in her world find her hysteria to be a dramatic overreaction to now-commonplace millennial malaise, and not the full-blown psychological breakdown that it becomes. “We didn’t even know how the film was going to end,” she admits, “we shot in sequence and I knew that the madness would deepen, but the rest was a complete mystery to me.”

It’s a mystery, one that many early reviews of the film have chalked up to the age-old trope of ‘female hysteria.’ Moss is well aware of this read of her character’s psychosis, and it’s one that she said was “extremely sexist to say,” promptly stifling the query to that effect by one of my fellow audience members. “Catherine is not just hysterical, she’s gone insane,” said Moss. “She’s found herself in a dark, dark place that a lot of us have found ourselves near or in.”

“I knew that the madness would deepen, but the rest was a complete mystery to me.”

The only horrors here are the ones found in the mind

Yet the reason for all of the depraved insanity depicted in the film is one that many of us can relate to—the need to spend a few minutes in some damn peace and quiet. The film acts as a mirror between its two leads. Each character seeks utter isolation, with devastating effects for the likes of Moss’s Catherine. I asked Moss whether she felt humans were capable of living in the kind of isolation that Catherine sought. “I love isolation,” she said with a laugh, “but true isolation would get old. It’s such an outdated concept now. It’s nearly impossible to be completely isolated in today’s day and age.” She took a moment to smooth her dress before looking back up at me with a mischievous grin. “But I would like to try it!”

Queen of Earth is among the more ambiguously terrifying experiences to be found at the cinema this year, but what sticks in your head even more than the jarring music, the razor-sharp dialogue, and the unbearable suspense, is Moss’s pure commitment to what might be the most complex performance of her career. She had already announced herself as an actress to watch, but with this film, she has become an actress that you can’t help but look away from.

with Katherine Waterston and Patrick Fugit

‘Queen of Earth’ is showing now in NYC with a national rollout through the month of September, get tickets here

All film stills courtesy of Sean Price Williams, Copyright Her Majesty September LLC. An IFC Films release.

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