I have to be very clear about something from the outset here: If your movie somehow involves a religious cult, I’ve probably already got tickets to it before you wrap principal photography. That’s just how it is with me and religious cults. Drama, comedy, documentary, indoctrination tape: It doesn’t really make much difference. You had me at “cult.” Given a choice in the matter, I’ve got to admit I’ll probably go for the serious drama first, and then the documentary; if you’re doing a comedy, I’ll worry (mildly, self-mockingly, OK, but still) that you’re not really serious about your subject. What I want, and what I’ve wanted since I was a child, is for your movie about cults to put the fear of God in me.
That’s the societal function of scare-narratives about cults, right? To make you think they could possibly reach out and get you. Since the high-water days of the new religious movements in America—roughly, the mid-’60s through the early ’80s, though Americans have been drawn to esoteric religions for much longer than that—there’ve been books and movies and sermons and multipart magazine articles that’ve drawn on common conceptions of how a cult must work, telling stories of attraction and indoctrination and eventual absorption by the cult. A small industry—deprogramming—grew up around the posited need to rescue people’s children from the clutches of cult leaders, alternately depicted as monomaniacal zealots or sociopathic hucksters.
The deprogrammer in the days of the cult scare favored a cowboy image. He lived outside the law in the service of a greater good. (James Woods in Split Image is perhaps the greatest onscreen incarnation of this type.) In reality, the deprogrammer was often no less a huckster than the gurus he sought to unseat. No qualifications were needed to call yourself one; all you had to do was hang up a shingle and be prepared to get into a little kidnapping. And that’s where the black comedy Faults (in theaters and streaming now) begins: failed deprogrammer Ansel Roth, struggling to make ends meet after a catastrophic rescue-gone-wrong in the waning days of his profession.
Faults, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is a terrific little movie. The acting’s smart, the pacing’s crisp, the jokes register darkly, and the dialogue snaps. It’s your standard deprogramming narrative: Parents hire a deprogrammer to rescue (or kidnap, depending on your outlook) their errant offspring from a local cult; after a long weekend inside a motel room, the deprogrammer will return them to the fold, maybe with a little questioning of his own ethics thrown in for that contemplative edge. The drama plays out like those procedural crime-show episodes that take place entirely in the interrogation room: All the action’s in the process, in the deprogrammer trying to break through the brainwashing and find the real person hidden within the zealot, in the shifting balances of power and doubt.
Even in playing all this mainly for laughs, Faults gets so much right that it made me want to host a screening of it for the directors of all the other what-are-cults-like movies of the past. It’s as focused on the life and immediate circumstances of bumbling Ansel Roth (Leland Orser, who wears his beaten-down role like a second skin) as on the young woman who’s joined up with a self-improvement cult, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s quietly eerie throughout). It tells us very nearly nothing about the Faults cult itself, and what little it does tell we get during the actual deprogramming, straight from the mouth of the convert herself, as she tries, with increasing success, to win Roth over. They’re just glimpses—tempting, confusing glimpses; we’re never taken into the cult compound, and we don’t see the cult leader working his magic on the flock. There’s no devotional music held up for us to enjoy or to mock. We just see a person in whom the cult has worked.
Consequently, the cult seems more possible and feels more real with each passing scene. Everybody on screen is talking about it; everybody’s interested in it, even partly or wholly reliant on it, if not by assent then by opposition. It’s this choice that makes Faults leagues better than its more serious-minded predecessors. I went back and watched Split Image—for what I should probably confess was the sixth or seventh time in my life—and it zipped right along, providing what-if scares and an overall creepy vibe, right up to the moment when the cult leader stepped into the frame, at which point serious questions began to overtake the narrative: This guy? These sermons? This shtick? You can’t really believe in a cult’s power unless you can catch at least the faintest whiff of its leader’s charisma, and that charisma is hard, if not impossible, to depict on screen.
Faults cleverly avoids this problem. It spends its energy on character, on the things people say and do in places we know about: sleeping in cars, ducking debts, trying to cheat a hotel diner out of breakfast. It seems a little far-fetched, and then it doesn’t, and then it really does, but by the time you get there you won’t care anymore. Its final reveal is the sort of beautiful Twilight Zone fillip you see coming only about 10 seconds before it arrives, and I recommend seeing the movie without reading anything further about it: The payoff is that good. I should point out, though, as a longstanding deep-cuts cult guy, that “don’t read too much else about it, just experience it yourself” is exactly the kind of thing a devoted cult member would say.