From the pitiful (or is that pitiless?) opening of Riley Stearns’s debut feature, in which Ansel Roth is forcibly ejected from a hotel restaurant after proffering an expired breakfast coupon, you may dismiss him as a wormy cheapskate. The lecture on cults he then delivers in a small conference room raises our suspicions that he’s also a huckster, hawking his book. The well-worn suit and ferrety, hunted look don’t help.
But as Faults goes on to reveal, there’s more to both this wounded man and the story it tells. When Ansel (Leland Orser) reluctantly takes on an assignment to deprogram a middle-aged couple’s daughter, he’s back in his element, though it involves kidnapping Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and detaining her in a motel room for talk therapy to free her mind, all the while fending off a dangerous creditor. In what amounts to an acting showcase for Orser—portraying a man caught between a rock, a hard place, and all manner of secret dark corners he understands only up to a certain point—the deprogramming procedure turns out to be far more of a two-way street than anticipated.
Stearns’s film presents a risky black-box proposition: what happens when you put the potentially rote dynamics between cult member and deprogrammer (à la Holy Smoke) in a stage play-like setting (à la Tape)? In this case, the result is a satisfying, small-scale success (and the answer, by the way, lies within).