Back in 2012 I caught the UK premiere of Resolution at the Celluloid Screams film festival and it was the one of the standout films of the weekend for me. It wasn’t perfect, but it was so original and clever it stuck with me. I was excited when the duo behind the film, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, released their follow-up Spring in 2014 (out a year later in the UK), although I was unfortunately a little let down by it. I found the final act quite disappointing in particular, but there was enough about the film that still impressed me to keep me interested in what the directing duo would do next. So I was thrilled to hear Arrow Films were giving Benson and Moorhead’s follow up, The Endless, a decent release in the UK.
Resolution had a blink and you’ll miss it straight to DVD release and Spring was a DVD only affair too on the now defunct Metrodome label and both, as far as I’m aware, had no special features on the discs. Arrow, as is their nature, have decided to go all out with The Endless though, giving it a selected cinema run and Blu-Ray and DVD releases both loaded with extras. I was also surprised and thrilled to hear the Blu-Ray version was being packaged with Resolution, allowing it to finally get the attention it deserves. After watching The Endless, the decision to package Benson and Moorhead’s debut with it is less surprising, but I’ll get into that later.
Below are my thoughts on the two films. I’ve decided to review them in chronological order and recommend that others watch them like this, despite Resolution seeming like a mere ‘bonus disc’. I’d say it’s fairly important to watch it before The Endless to be honest, but I’d be interested to hear what people made of the film if they didn’t. I’m getting ahead of myself again though. On with the reviews…
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Screenplay: Justin Benson
Starring: Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Emily Montague, Kurt David Anderson, Skyler Meacham, Zahn McClarnon, Bill Oberst Jr, Josh Higgins
Running Time: 93 min
In Resolution, Mike (Peter Cilella) is sent a map and strange video of Chris (Vinny Curran), an old friend who became a junkie and now lives in a shack in the boondocks, permanently wasted, shooting off guns. Mike decides to head over there and shackles Chris to a pipe, imprisoning him there for a week to go cold turkey. Mike stays with him during this time, helping his friend through the various stages of detox and fending/paying off the local drug dealers and the Native American owner of the shack. On his regular trips outside, he comes across strange old photos, notebooks, film reels and other media that keep appearing on his path. Mike is fascinated by these items that all seem to tell unusual stories with disturbing endings. After a while though, whoever is leaving these messages seems to be watching Mike and Chris, leaving them wondering whether they should stick it out to the end of Chris’ cold turkey or get the hell out of there.
Resolution is an unusual film that fuses intimate character drama with horror and even a fair dose of humour. As such, it’s not an easy sell to your average Joe who fancies a gory jump-scare horror film or a tough drug addiction drama. However, if you’re into original, high concept indie filmmaking you’re in for a treat. That’s not to discredit its horror or dramatic credentials though. Although not out and out terrifying, Resolution creeps under your skin with initially subtle touches that seem off and unsettle, before slowly building to a surreal and thrilling finale. The disconcerting atmosphere is achieved by unusual sound design, weird shot transitions and shots held on a little too long or lingering on odd details. Revelations made in the final act push the surrealism further.
The direction the film goes in as it moves on, doing my best not to spoil it, is part of what makes the film special, but it could also be seen as its flaw. It takes on a very meta angle about storytelling towards the end, which I found interesting but it gives it a bit of a film-school feel where being clever and different is more important than crafting a satisfying story. In some of the special features Benson and Moorhead claim they didn’t necessarily intend to make a meta statement though – what happens in the final act was originally designed just to work on a literal level. It’s hard not to see the film as a meta statement about telling a story and audience expectations on how to end it though. On this second viewing I didn’t find it quite as deep and intelligent as on my first though, which is why my rating here is a tad lower than when I reviewed it 6 years ago.
Resolution’s originality is not in doubt though, and although the concept can feel a bit contrived, it still makes for a fascinating puzzle box of a film. The dramatic elements are strong too. OK, maybe Chris’ withdrawal symptoms aren’t as raw or believable as they could be, but they work well enough within the film’s style. The central performances are strong too, particularly for such a low budget debut film. The chemistry between the pair is particularly strong and it’s a lot of fun just to hear them bicker and joke around. Due to this, without the horror elements, the film would work as a lo-fi slacker drama if the filmmakers decided to go in a different direction.
So it may be flawed and I don’t think it will suit all tastes, but Resolution is still a bold, solidly made and enjoyable debut feature that showed the indie genre movie world that Benson and Moorhead were a pair to look out for.
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Screenplay: Justin Benson
Starring: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Tate Ellington, Callie Hernandez, Lew Temple, Emily Montague, James Jordan
Running Time: 112 min
The Endless surprisingly sees Benson and Moorhead take lead acting roles as brothers (also named Justin and Aaron) who escaped from a cult 10 years ago. They’re now living dull lives on the breadline as cleaners and struggle to connect with the outside world after their experiences as children/teenagers. One day Aaron receives a video tape with a message from the cult letting them know ‘ascension’ is near. It makes him long to return to their camp as he’s not happy with his current situation and, being fairly young when he left the cult, his memories of it are positive.
Justin is very protective of his younger brother so doesn’t want to let him go back to the camp. However, Aaron talks him into letting them stay just for one night. As they spend time with their old friends, who don’t seem to have aged much in 10 years, the pair begin to wonder whether they made the right decision to leave. Something still doesn’t seem right to Justin though as strange things keep happening and the brothers keep extending their stay, partly due to Aaron fitting in and enjoying himself, but also because Justin becomes more curious as to what the cult is really about.
From the offset, The Endless has a similar feel to Resolution. It’s got the lo-fi, mumblecore feel with hints of something not quite being right to cause unease. It’s got more messages on outdated technology appearing to our protagonists too. As the film unfolds though (and this might be classed as a spoiler, so skip ahead two paragraphs if you don’t want to risk it) you realise this isn’t just Benson and Moorhead getting lazy and treading familiar ground, it’s actually a sequel of sorts, or at least an extension of the universe created in their debut film. It makes Arrow’s decision to package the films together (in the Blu-Ray release at least) all the more important.
This decision surprised me and the first time the films really click together (after a couple of hints that you’ll have to be eagle eyed to spot) felt a bit contrived and silly. However, the links build and I found the way the two films weave together quite clever in the end. It’s maybe not vital to see Resolution first, as the main thrust of The Endless doesn’t totally rely on these connections, but I think it would be a lot more confusing without doing so.
The two films aren’t overly similar though. The themes and directions the sci-fi elements travel down are different. The relationship dynamic between the brothers is vital here for instance and the co-directors do a surprisingly good job of taking on lead-role duties. Due to the fact they’ve worked together for a number of years, they seem to have that close connection that brothers have and it shows on screen.
On a technical level you can see the pair have matured since their debut too. The cinematography is impressive at times and some of the effects work is great. To give details would be to spoil some of the mysteries that unfold though.
Speaking of which, it’s the puzzle box style of the narrative that I love about the film, much as with Resolution. Here I think the story and ideas are slightly more successful though. It plays with some fairly complicated and unusual ideas, but once the main pieces of the puzzle click into place, it’s not confusing. In fact, by the climax you realise the important take away of the film is actually fairly simple. This is not meant as a criticism either. It makes for a more satisfying film that has clever ideas, but knows not to bog them down in an elaborate mess with no clear, emotionally satisfying resolution. There are further meta readings to be taken too, so you can elevate the film to loftier heights, should you wish. I don’t want to describe my reading of it at this level as it could spoil a major plot point.
With the links to Resolution, as well as the high concept elements of its own story, once again the film can feel a little contrived at times. However, it remains an intoxicating puzzle box that keeps you gripped with its slowly building series of clues and an eerily quiet sense of dread. I do feel this is the more successful film of the pair in achieving this too. Benson and Moorhead have honed their skills and proved their debut wasn’t just a flash in the pan. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
The Endless will be available on digital HD and screened in selected UK cinemas from 29th June and it will be released on Blu-Ray in a 2 disc set with Resolution and on 1 disc DVD (without Resolution) on 2nd July, through Arrow Films. I watched the Blu-Ray versions and both films look and sound great.
There are absolutely tonnes of special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:
BLU-RAY TWO-DISC LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of The Endless and Moorhead & Benson’s first feature, Resolution - Reversible sleeve with a choice of artwork designs - Limited edition collector’s booklet containing new writing on the films by critics Jamie Graham and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
BLU-RAY DISC ONE: THE ENDLESS
– Audio commentary by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead - Brand-new interview with Benson and Moorhead, recorded exclusively for this release - Behind-the-scenes featurette - Breaking the News, Benson and Moorhead pull a practical joke on actor Vinny Curran Casting Aaron, Benson, Moorhead and producer Dave Lawson audition for the role of Aaron - Casting Smiling Dave, Lawson auditions for the role of Smiling Dave - VFX Breakdown - UFO Cult Comedy, improvised short film made whilst Benson and Moorhead were on the festival circuit - Vinny’s Story, a behind-the-scenes documentary filmed on-set by Curran - Michael Felker, a tongue-in-cheek featurette referencing The Endless’s editor - Seven deleted scenes - Outtakes - Theatrical Trailer
BLU-RAY DISC TWO: RESOLUTION
– Audio Commentary with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and actors Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran - Audio Commentary with Benson and Moorhead - Audio Commentary with Carmel the Dog - Brand-new interview with Benson and Moorhead, recorded exclusively for this release - Archive interview with Benson and Moorhead - Behind the scenes featurette
DVD SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– Audio commentary by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead - Brand-new interview with Benson and Moorhead, recorded exclusively for this release - Behind-the-scenes featurette - Breaking the News, Benson and Moorhead pull a practical joke on actor Vinny Curran - Casting Aaron, Benson, Moorhead and producer Dave Lawson audition for the role of Aaron - Casting Smiling Dave, Lawson auditions for the role of Smiling Dave - VFX Breakdown - UFO Cult Comedy, improvised short film made whilst Benson and Moorhead were on the festival circuit - Vinny’s Story, a behind-the-scenes documentary filmed on-set by Curran - Michael Felker, a tongue-in-cheek featurette referencing The Endless’s editor - Seven deleted scenes - Outtakes - Theatrical Trailer - Reversible sleeve with a choice of artwork designs
After seeing the video messages Benson and Moorhead made for the screening I saw of Resolution a few years ago, I got the feeling these guys would be big on special features for their films and I certainly wasn’t wrong. There is so much squeezed into these discs and much of it is created by and features the pair. They’re passionate, honest, energetic and fun to watch and listen to, so it’s a joy to work through all the material here. A lot of it is goofy but charming – such as the little skits they made for film festivals or the outtakes. The making of featurettes and commentaries, although also light-hearted and full of wisecracks, dig deep into the production process (including pre and post) so make the package a must buy for aspiring filmmakers or anyone interested in the behind the scenes workings of independent film.