Written and directed by Riley Stearns
The essence of a confidence game is as follows: the con artist describes a terrific bargain in which the mark is offered a chance in which to invest. Due to the mark’s own greed, he hands over whatever personal assets he must to the confidence man, expecting a greater return that he never receives. Though, as Joe Mantegna’s hustler points in House of Games, it is called a confidence game because they are giving their confidence to you. Not the other way around. This is why, throughout history, people have been known to lose articles of clothing and even their houses.
Riley Stearns’s Faults, an understated dramatic-comedy, raises the stakes and the number of games being played at once. Everything is a con and a fickle negotiation. As nebbish, squirrelly Dr. Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) gives hotel room lectures promoting his new book about how cults control their subjects, he makes attempts in his personal life to exercise some amount of control as well. Down on his luck, Orser plays dumb while trying to screw a hotel out of a free breakfast, and insists lecture audiences buy his new book and then shell out a few more dollars for an autograph. This all comes to a head when a the brother of a girl Orser had de-programmed from a cult years earlier, only to take her own life, brutally beats the doctor.
Soon he is approached by an elderly couple (played by the always reliable Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) who desperately need him to deprogram their runaway daughter Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Like everything Orser does for other people, “its not going to be cheap.” Orser and a crew quickly kidnap Claire and he spends several days in a motel room with her, trying to draw her out and slowly ingratiate her parents back into her life.
Faults begins as a full-fledged comedy, with only the slightest inkling that the film will take a much darker turn. This is done with conviction, helped by the naturalistic performances by Orser and Winstead. Once the motel setting becomes home-base, the laughs slowly and rightfully peter out, and soon we’re unsure who is manipulating who.
If Stearns’s work wasn’t so impressively subtle, Faults could have worked as a decent, broader stage play. But his work and shifts in tone give the film a sense of urgency vital to the story. Were it not for one entirely unnecessary twist in the last reel, Faults would have remained a meticulously perfect script. Alas, it stretches credulity to an eye-rolling degree.
It is interesting that the viewer is told so little about Faults (by the end, the most we know is that there is no “The” in the name of that cult). To the film, Faults’ motives are unimportant, so long as there are motives. Because well-intentioned or nefarious, it’s all still about the con.
– Kenny Hedges