Playing like a yellowing ’70s sci-fi novel transposed to the screen by David Mamet, which is to say, as an exercise in audience manipulation, Faults obliquely addresses its narrative mysteries through the conversational cracks of two people in enforced proximity. Ansel Roth (Leland Orser), a disgraced expert on mind control, is physically attacked at a barely attended seminar for his part in the suicide of a young woman he failed to deprogram. With that professional scandal went his primetime slot, his wife with the royalties, and any credibility. Deep in debt to a two-bit agent now making threats, Ansel overcharges for signed copies of a new book nobody wants, sleeps in his car, and at a particularly low point that opens the film, tries to get a free meal from a hotel restaurant on an expired voucher. “I have nothing,” he declares of the $4.75 bill he’s unable to pay, accurately describing both the content of his wallet and the state of his life. Down to his bristly, crestfallen moustache, Orser looks every inch the loser, and watching him mope around, even the strings of Heather McIntosh’s score sound pitifully plucked.
After the seminar, Ansel is approached by Terry (Chris Ellis) and Evelyn (Beth Grant), begging him to return their daughter to them as she was before being indoctrinated in a cult. Though they’re far from worshipful fans, Ansel needs them as much as they need him. They still don’t want a copy of his book, but they’re prepared to pay handsomely, breakfast included. Kidnapping and sequestering Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in a motel room, the charlatan attempts to defraud the mysticism of the cult known as Faults, collectively working to move beyond the physical human form into beings of light. This all starts to sound a little less crazy after Mom and Dad interrupt Ansel’s sessions to dress their little girl in clothes she wore at age 13, and Ansel visits his manager to find him making ends meet by photographing Stepfordville couples in matching Mister Rogers sweaters—instances that suggest the suburban world Claire’s parents want her to return to is close enough to another cult and just as controlling.
The presence of Lance Reddick adds to the weirdness, but Faults isn’t predicated on a paranoid slow-build toward an uncanny end. Stearns is more interested in closely examining the heads of two people in crisis than leaving the audience scratching theirs, though as investigative enquiry turns to interrogation, the film reveals itself to be every bit as sinister as the similarly motel-bound Bug. A confined space generating pressure along psychological fault lines, the motel room is also symbolic of Ansel’s isolation and Claire’s transitory state of being, working her way along a spiritual byway to enlightenment. Unable to escape for five days, they’re equally restricted by the lack of any shared language. Ever the victim, Ansel works hard at creating a shared sense of victimization that might cajole a more earthbound truth out of his mark, but he’s a trickster with no confidence in his own con, a magician always one step behind his audience, the savior’s mask presented to Claire and her parents constantly slipping.
Through unfinished sentences, misplaced emphasis, and muddled commands, Orser perfectly catches the conscienceless bafflement of a man determinedly looking to regain control of his life by hopelessly trying to exert it over another. In what is initially a decidedly one-sided exchange, Winstead’s comparative silence and challenging gaze is a vitally disquieting component of their dialogue, expressive of the profound absence in the man sitting across from her, and the mind games that feel increasingly like con games.