Deprogramming is hard work in 'Faults'

Director Riley Stearns' debut feature has an understated creepiness.

When a down-on-his-luck expert in cult deprogramming tackles a tough case in "Faults," the results are unsettling — for him, if not the audience. The wan drama is enlivened by bursts of black comedy, some bits more effective than others, and though it ultimately disappoints, there's promise in the understated creepiness of Riley Stearns' debut feature. The writer-director's eye for character detail helps to buoy the sagging action, with crucial assists from lead actors Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Leland Orser.

Orser (a veteran of the "Taken" movies) is especially strong as the very weak Ansel Roth, whose days as a bestselling author and TV host are long behind him. The opening sequence is a grabber, the character's sour desperation fully realized in a couple of sharp scenes.

Reduced to conducting low-rent seminars and sleeping in his car, Ansel is beyond the point of caring when an anxious couple (Beth Grant and Chris Ellis) ask him to extricate their daughter from a cult. With creditors breathing down his neck, he takes the job, and the movie settles into a static two-hander, offering no fresh insights on the business of mind control.

Even so, Stearns uses the motel setting's aggressive drabness to good effect, and Winstead is eerily inscrutable as Claire, spouting sect doctrine and wavering between fury and seduction as she aims to turn the tables on her abductor. Though the filmmaker (Winstead's spouse) undercuts the final twist with a rush of blunt shockers, his working-stiff slant on an oft-glamorized occupation is a welcome wrinkle.

"Faults."

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Playing: Vintage Cinemas' Los Feliz 3, Los Angeles.

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