I liked Faults quite a bit. Not enough to say I "loved" it, but it ranks among the better movies I've seen this year. It's thoroughly engaging, tense, brilliantly acted, and just the right blend of terrifying and darkly comic.
This is at least the third movie about cults I've reviewed on this blog, together with Sound of My Voice and Split Image. What's interesting about Faults is how similar it is to Sound of My Voice, and that's kind of why I wanted to write about it today.
Both are slow-burn thrillers about the confrontation between a headstrong, yet vulnerable, protagonist who wishes to debunk a cult and a charismatic woman who leads it, both blur the lines between reality and fiction, and both end on a bleak note. But I really liked Faults, and I can't help but feel frustrated by Sound of My Voice.
As similar as they are, they're also kind of the inverse of each other. Faults focuses only half a dozen characters and roughly two sets, but feels open. SoMV features a cast of dozens and sprawls throughout Los Angeles, yet feels claustrophobic. Faults begins by showing the protagonist at his weakest and shows him drawing strength. SoMV begins with the protagonist at a peak and shows him crumbling. Faults concludes with an unambiguous declaration of the truth, however tragic. SoMV concludes by clouding the truth and hopes such an ending will be thought-provoking.
If the subject matter was different, I'd tell you to watch both films in a double feature, because both are extremely well made. But the subject matter happens to be morally treacherous territory, so I can't do that.
In my review for Sound of My Voice, I concluded by saying it was a dangerous film. I didn't mean that as a buzz word or some kind of pull quote platitude. I mean it is legitimately dangerous. It's this fantastic thriller for the first eighty minutes or so, and then ends with a completely gratuitous twist that (despite being explainable) urges the viewer to reconsider the rest of the movie with a sympathetic ear to its cult, because it suggests that everything they believe could have been true all along. The problem is, the previous eighty minutes are full of people being terrible. Even if all the fantastical elements of SoMV were 100% real, the cult still perpetrated evil acts and cannot be excused for it. A cult is a cult is a cult, no matter what their central tenets.
But because the movie has that little twist, it is implicitly excusing the horrible actions with an "ends justifies the means" argument. It spreads a terrible message to its audience. (To put it in other words: suppose you saw this really great action movie about a guy trying to rescue his girlfriend from a gang of evil kidnappers. It's amazing. The best action scenes you've ever seen. Then, in the last five minutes, there's an extremely convoluted and nonsensical plot twist in which the hero has to rape his girlfriend in order to stop her from overdosing on drugs. No matter how great the rest of the movie is, the moral is, "Rape can be good sometimes.")
Anyway, I don't mean to rehash my complaint about SoMV so much, but I think it's important to give that background because it's part of the reason why I liked Faults so much. It's basically the movie that SoMV wanted to be, but because it doesn't try to insert any lip service to being "open-minded," it gives you a frank, cold, and sinister portrayal of a cult.
Faults has a moment or two where it suggests something supernatural or otherworldly could be going on, but these moments are used to emphasize the danger of belief rather than affirm it. And instead of having somebody shrug and say, "Gee, I don't know what to believe now," the consequences of fanatical devotion are taken to an explosive and deadly conclusion.
To put it another way (bear with me on this), it's kind of like the difference in how fringe groups are depicted in Rambo III and Rambo IV. In Rambo III, the Taliban are strange people who might be driven to violence, but they're ultimately fighting for something valuable, so they're almost "quirky" more than they are "merciless." But in Rambo IV, the Burmese troops, despite whatever political context may have led to the situation they find themselves in, commit unmistakably evil acts and the movie doesn't pretend that there's an excuse for them.
It's not that I have a problem with ambiguity. I like moral ambiguity - I try to implement it in my own stories when I can. It's just that I don't like forced ambiguity. The layers of complexity involved in religious belief can be staggering, but there's nothing grey about a cult: the term, by definition, means that they're a source of harm.
It's rare to see a non-documentary movie about cults that treats the subject with stark gravity rather than using it as a punchline. It seems to be rarer still to find one that's takes a completely reasonable stance that cults should not be tolerated and doesn't go soft for the sake of "respecting beliefs." Faults is a rare breed and should be celebrated. Even with the nonsensical murder-by-book-beating.