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Arriving in the wake of a brilliant short film (The Cub) and a trailer that brands it “Martha Marcy May Marlene remixed by the Coen brothers” one can’t help but feel buzzed at the arrivial of Riley Stearns’ debut feature.

In truth Faults is a film of many faces. Boasting one of the most intriguing set-ups I’ve come across recently; washed up cult expert (Leland Orser) takes one last job to de-program a firey maiden (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Stearns takes his conceit and bends it all out of shape. What begins as a seemingly humourous, and indeed Coen-esque caper of character assasination slowly unfurls into something more psychological and tormented. The locations bounce first from American slacker hot spots – hotels, diners – before narrowing in on a pair of motel rooms. It starts bright, ends shadowy. The film concludes with more of a straight-face but while Faults is undoubtedly more entertaining when operating as a black comedy rather than a psychological chamber piece, the performances demand that the film move into deeper territory. Luckily the transition is smooth and the film stays afloat by anchoring itself onto two wonderful leads.

Orser, a “who’s that guy?” character actor with two decades of work behind him, deserves this lead role and he makes it count. As Ansel Roth, he looks like a pile of crumpled laundry that has been straightened out and punched in the face. He’s one of life’s victims, constantly fighting against his own, ahem, faults and finding himself under a bus just as he’s crawled out from the gutter. In contrast Winstead (also Stearns’ wife) stands tall and confident. Her character, Claire (though she doesn’t care for that name anymore) is difficult to pin down. Roth isn’t averse in her language. All his de-programming tricks seem to bounce straight off of her. She stays awake all night staring at the television, doesn’t escape when given chance and seems calmest when things get uneasy. She rarely cracks, instead letting Roth do all the crumbling. The scenes of Winstead and Orser pinging off one another are undoubtedly its strongest.

The supporting players too all share interesting faces and gentle quirks but in contrast to the leads they rarely come across as anything other than background oddballs. One subplot finds Roth owing money to his book publisher played by Jon Gries who enlists an enforcer (Lance Reddick) to put the squeeze on him. Both make an impression but their presence feels rudimentary at times. As the film slowly peels back its layers they become less essential and are simply forgotten about. Claire’s parents suffer an inverted problem. They initially feel like stock characters; bumbling parents naive to the more explicit edges of the real world, but as the plot finds more reasons to keep them around they instead come across like distractions to the main event.

As with most first-time feature directors, Stearns struggles to cover his tracks as far as inspirations are concerned and Faults rings heavily with not just the echo of the Coens but also Dogtooth‘s master of grand “wtf?” Yorgos Lanthimos. A few clicks in Google will show that these were indeed touchstone inspirations for Stearns and he impressivly plucks qualities from each for his own gain but doesn’t quite manage to put his own stamp on them. Some moments can’t help but give the impression of someone trying to get that Joel & Ethan feeling and instead sounding like an impersonator. There is an original voice there somewhere, it just hasn’t quite blossomed yet. Still, Stearns does so much right here – intriguing characters, bold plotting, establishing a mini-universe – that Faults is never anything less than an impressive and memorable debut.

Directed by Riley Stearns; written by Riley Stearns; starring Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jon Gries, Lance Reddick; 90 minutes.

Faults is available to rent and purchase on both iTunes and Amazon Instant.