Tag Archives: Justin Benson

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ENDLESS (2017)

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DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple

PLOT: Brothers who escaped a cult a decade ago receive a videocassette with a strange message and return to their old compound, where it becomes clear that behind the friendly facade of their erstwhile “family” lurks a hazard beyond contemplation.

Still from The Endless (2017)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTThe Endless starts out a little creepy, with altogether too-friendly cult members interacting with the two runaways that defamed their group, before evolving into something skin-crawlingly foreboding. An unnamed, immaterial, but ever-present Entity generates a recurring circumstance found throughout Arcadia Park that puts a new spin on the idea of being “lost in time.”

COMMENTS: A moral found in The Endless is well reflected by the filmmaker’s methods: keep moving. Acting as a veritable two-man band, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead do virtually all the heavy lifting in this science fiction(ish)/horror(ish) drama (no “ish”): they direct, star, write, and do the cinematography. They also reach back and pull their previous features (Resolution and Spring) forward along with them in subtle ways. Paradoxically combining pinpoint focus with immense scope, Benson and Moorhead squeeze an infinity into one story comprised of, for lack of a better phrase, many narrative wheels.

An opening montage introduces us to Justin and Aaron Smith (Benson and Moorhead), two brothers barely making ends meet by doing dead-end work, in desperate need of a new car battery. Their rut is interrupted by a parcel containing a camcorder videotape with a message from their past. The “alien death cult” they escaped apparently didn’t pull the trigger. Their visit to their old digs at Arcadia Park starts well enough, but unnerving details begin to accumulate: multiple moons in the sky, hazy atmospheric barrier walls, and ominous rock pillars scattered not-so-randomly around the camp. As Aaron becomes more enamored with cult life, Justin’s aversion spikes. Diving to the base of a buoy in the camp’s lake, he finds two things underwater: another camcorder cassette, and something unimaginably horrific that he barely escapes. Despite this, Aaron decides to stay. As Justin begins his journey home, he stumbles across the true nature of the problem at Arcadia Park, and returns to save his brother.

One could use any number of adjectives to describe how wonderful this movie is—gripping, mysterious, surprising, funny. I’m handicapped because were I to provide any more details, the film’s twists would be revealed. Suffice it to say, temporal manipulation plays heavily in The Endless; the title itself, perhaps, provides a clue. Arcadia Park’s citizenry do not seem to have aged much since the brothers’ departure. Is it merely healthy country living? There’s a heavily locked cabin under the watchful eye of an Arcadian elder. Does it contain guns, or something far more troubling? And as for that mental patient who wandered on to the cult’s grounds, how real are her charcoal drawings of a monstrous nebula looming over the camp? Unfortunately, I can only pose questions to make hints. Surprise is key.

At its screening at the Fantasia Film Festival, there was a point where every audience member was dead-silent, and I’m convinced we were all holding our breath at the same time. Throughout the bizarre adventure of Justin and Aaron, there is a delicate balance of mundane, humorous, and menacing—with a palpable shift toward the latter as the movie progresses. The film’s world and people are self-contained (in more ways than one), and no line is out of place or without purpose. And then there’s the moral to The Endless, as I said before: keep moving. I’d suggest there is also a second moral here: never put off replacing a car battery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…The Endless rapidly develops from a mysterious, elliptical story about cult survivors and strained relationships into a much larger and stranger movie…”–Tasha Robinson, The Verge (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: RESOLUTION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

FEATURING: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Zahn McClarnon, Bill Oberst Jr., Kurt David Anderson, Emily Montague

PLOT: A man ties up his methamphetamine-addicted friend in a cabin in hopes he will kick his drug habit, but strange things start to happen.

Still from Resolution (2012)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: In this tense micro-budget thriller, a young man tries to bring his friend back to reality, only to find that “reality” is not just open to interpretation, but malleable and ever-changing. In fact, the pair’s reality might not even be their own. A genre bender and a puzzler all in one film, this indie thriller combines horror, mystery, drama, and psychological suspense elements with a novel premise and twist and turns to deliver a uniquely weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS: In spite of some worn clichés—mysterious found footage, missing researchers, and a mystic medicine cabin obligatorily set on an Indian reservation—with Resolution, independent writer/director Justin Benson brings us a breath of fresh air. The film is technically adept on its small budget, and presents a real genre-bender of a plot. Resolution builds slowly as a crime drama, becomes psychological suspense, then morphs into a puzzler riddled with paradoxes. It releases in a brief climax of occult horror.

In the story, yuppie Michael (Peter Cilella) travels to a remote squatters’ shack, where his addict friend Chris (Vinny Curran), bristling with firearms and contraband, has holed up, resolved to kill himself with drugs. Michael restrains Chris, and forces him to withdraw “cold-turkey” over the course of a week.

A progression of weirdos make the scene. Chris’s low-life cohorts (Kurt David Anderson and Kyler Meacham) drop in, demanding drugs. A tightly-wired Native American property owner (Zahn McClarnon) and his menacing gang show up to evict the occupants. A scheming real estate developer (Josh Higgins) creeps in, mistaking Michael and Chris for the deed-holders, and a doomsday religious cult is engaging in shenanigans a little too nearby for comfort.

Michael strives to maintain control over the situation to buy enough time to get Chris straightened out, and back to civilization and rehab. Despite the threat posed by oddball interlopers, the real tension is yet to come.

Someone…or some THING is watching and recording everything Michael and Chris do. But how? The surveillance indicates a presence that looms closer and closer, yet Michael can’t detect the observer.

Looking for clues, Micheal discovers strange footage shot by a missing anthropology team, then locates a laconic neighbor, Bryon (Bill Oberst Jr.), with an uncomfortably unorthodox existential philosophy. From here the story plunges into perplexing paradoxes. Chris’s sleazy drug buddies and the landowner converge for a showdown. Mind-bending events knock Mike and Chris away from objective reality and any sense of control over their destinies.

Resolution is talky, but intriguing. The long-winded plot is better suited for an hour short. Aside from establishing an initial setting and circumstances, the first half of the film doesn’t bear vital relation to the engaging concepts of the second. It’s still pretty good. Unsettling developments keep us watching. Plot twists reveal a honeycomb of passages down which to venture. Rather than choose one of them and proceed, the filmmakers offer a twisted experience based on the fact that these alternate routes exist.

Part of the fun of Resolution is thinking about the various possibilities and what they mean. In our minds, we pursue them, trying to predict the outcome, but just when we think we know what’s going to happen, Resolution throws us a new twist. Throughout it all ripples a nerve-jarring undercurrent of menace, indeterminate and incipient. Mike and Chris’s safe return to the outside world is increasingly unfeasible.

Subtle cinematic artistry reinforces the exposition. In the scene in which Michael is conversing with Byron, Byron discusses his views about narrative and story. As he explains his views, he holds a mirror. At first, the mirror is angled so that Micheal’s reflection blends with Byron’s face. The effect is to project Byron and Micheal as melded together, depicting a dual entity. But Michael cannot see it. Only we can see it.

Byron angles the mirror so that we see another mirror on the wall behind Michael, producing the illusion of endless repetition. It illustrates the concept of how a painter records a scene. There is the scene, and a painter painting it. But there is a larger scene. For us to see the painter painting the scene, there must be another painter, painting the painter painting the scene… and so on to infinity. This is a pivotal moment in the film. Resolution carries distinct, though not fully developed sub-themes about the evolution and structure of folklore, myth and story, and these are tied into paradoxes.

Resolution was filmed in a half-completed lodge under construction, illuminated by hook lamps, and without background music. Intimate camerawork increases a sense of realism, almost like seeing a documentary. The technique is effective because Resolution turns out to be all about deconstruction and the plastic nature of reality. By the time we realize this, we’ve accepted the actuality of what’s transpired, only to have the drop sheet yanked out from under our feet.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strangely tense and humorous meta-narrative about two friends experiencing weird goings-on at a remote cabin.”–Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)


Resolution trailer