Riley Stearns
Stars: Leland Orser, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The majority of “Faults” unfolds in a single motel room, but it’s still at least three different movies. It begins as a caustically funny character study of a man who’s fallen on hard times: Ansel (Leland Orser), a “renowned expert” on cults (his description) introduced trying to game the hotel that’s hosting one of his lectures into a free five-dollar lunch. He’s an off-putting and probably deserved crap magnet who nonetheless walks away from the engagement with a sweet-seeming gig: deprogramming a young woman, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has fallen in deep with a noted cult.

The third film this will eventually become is spoilerable, but one of the most impressive things about the feature debut of director Riley Stearns — in real life the Mr. Winstead — is how organic it flows from one thing to another, and how this is all tied neatly into its idea of power struggles. When “Faults” begins, it’s close to a deadpan dark comedy, with Ansel both coldly abrasive and a screw-up, and whose kidnapping of Claire and transportation to a crummy motel are fraught with minor hiccups and a lack of confidence in those in charge. They’re downright surprised when Claire doesn’t make a run for it during her first night; after all, the guy who was supposed to be watching her later admits to catnaps.

There are twists, but “Faults”’ evolution into something more serious and dark is far more unnerving — so gradual and steady-handed you might not notice the grift until things have turned more sour than seemed possible with this gently funny film. Nothing really changes on the surface. The performers don’t dramatically alter their performances. Orser, an underrated character actor (he was an ace freaked-out shrieker in "Se7en" and "Very Bad Things") getting a rare co-lead, is pissy and nervy throughout. And Winstead has a magnetic blankness — someone who seems smart even when she’s talking about alternate worlds and her connections to higher powers. Without straining itself, “Faults” gets very close to tapping into the mystery of what causes people — rational, intelligent people — to willingly succumb to a brainwash, surrendering the id to something that gives the illusion of comfort and order. No matter what jaw-dropping business happens in the final moments, the film’s real terror is more stealth and therefore creepier.

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