Over the last few weeks, the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the best that the indie filmmaking world has to offer, and during the fest’s run, I had the chance to check out just a few of the genre-related offerings on Tribeca’s lineup: The Endless from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, Pat Healy’s feature film directorial debut, Take Me, and the psychological thriller Tilt from Kasra Farahani. Read on for my thoughts on this trio of thought-provoking cinematic treats.
The Endless: Before I start discussing The Endless, I want to take a moment and say that I feel like the best way to experience the latest from Benson and Moorhead is to go in knowing as little as possible, because that’s how I saw it, and it 110% blew my mind. That being said, part of my job is reviewing movies, so I promise I will keep mentions of any of the amazing reveals contained within The Endless to only what’s absolutely necessary in relation to the film’s basic plot points.
When Moorhead and Benson first broke onto the genre scene in 2012 with Resolution, you could almost sense a shift in the landscape of indie genre filmmaking that followed in its wake. Their debut feature collaboration was revelatory, ambitious, and challenging, with great rewards within its intricate story that awaited genre fans who were okay with digging a little deeper. Their Lovecraftian exploration of love and fate, Spring, delivered a beautiful story of two people willing to risk it all in order to be together. And now with The Endless, Benson and Moorhead come full circle with yet another poignant and endlessly engaging story that’s as ambitious as it is intriguing, and I don’t think I could have possibly loved it more once all the puzzle pieces began clicking into place.
If you’ve seen Resolution, then you know that in the film, Benson and Moorhead portray members of a UFO cult living in a remote area of the mountains outside of San Diego, and the pair reprise their roles for The Endless, as we catch up with the Smith brothers—Aaron (played Aaron) and Justin (played by, well, Justin)—who have struggled in their lives ever since they escaped the cult, which has also caused some friction in their brotherly relationship. One day, a mysterious tape from one of their old cult friends (Callie Hernandez) shows up on their doorstep, and after they watch it, Aaron pleads with Justin to take a trip back to visit the seemingly idyllic commune.
Justin gives in, and once they arrive back at the camp, everything feels exactly the way it felt when they left, which might seem normal to a lot of folks, but Justin realizes that things feel just a little “too familiar,” especially because nearly a decade had passed and all of their old cult buddies look exactly the same. As the brothers kick it around the camp for a few days, they realize something much bigger is going on than just a wacky group of cultists who believe their ascension is nigh, and once certain truths are revealed—for them as characters, and to us, the viewers—neither Justin nor Aaron (or their familial relationship) will ever be the same again.
It’s so damned hard to discuss certain aspects of The Endless that absolutely thrilled me to no end, but suffice to say that if you’re a Resolution fan, you’re absolutely going to love this. What’s even better about The Endless is that while it’s a wondrous treat for the enlightened, there’s still a great deal to admire about this latest Benson/Moorhead joint, even if you haven’t seen any of their prior work (just be prepared to want to go back and watch Resolution afterwards, which is precisely what I did). The story they tell is so universally fulfilling that there’s a lot that resonates even if you missed out on their debut collaboration.
Once again, Moorhead and Benson have raised the bar in the realm of indie filmmaking with their collaborative efforts on The Endless, and I selfishly hope they continue making movies together forever and ever (and ever). To me (and I’m probably biased because my love for Resolution runs DEEP), The Endless is absolute perfection.
Movie Score: 5/5
Take Me: Over the last few decades, actor Pat Healy has continued to carve out an incredible career in front of the camera with stellar performances in a multitude of great films, including Compliance, Ghost World, The Innkeepers, Cheap Thrills, Carnage Park, Teenage Cocktail, Starry Eyes, and dozens more (I will also admit that I geek out whenever I’m revisiting Magnolia and he pops up in the pharmacy scene). For his latest, Take Me, Healy does double duty, as he takes the directorial reins on the crime caper/heist thriller/dark comedy that has more wickedly fun twists and turns than a West Virginia mountain road (to borrow a phrase from my grandpa).
Just when you think you know where Take Me is headed, Healy pulls the rug out from underneath us as viewers, and consistently keeps the material feeling fresh and surprising, with a shared chemistry between Healy and co-star Taylor Schilling that is palpable in every scene they share. So, as far as feature film debuts go, Pat Healy has a lot to be proud of with what he creates in Take Me, because I love a film that can keep me guessing until the very end, and perpetually entertained, too.
Take Me follows a professional kidnapper by the name of Ray Moody (Healy), who is about to take on his most challenging client to date, Anna St. Blair (Schilling), a businesswoman looking for an experience that will push her further emotionally and psychologically than she’s ever been taken before. But once Anna’s “kidnapping” gets going, Ray realizes he might be in way over his head as nothing is what it seems with his hostage, resulting in him being trapped inside his very own nightmarish scenario, desperately trying to figure out Anna and whether or not he can fully trust everything that she says. Much like the film I reviewed prior to this one, Take Me is best experienced with its surprises intact, because the film’s final act is truly one unexpected whammy after another—just so much fun.
Mike Makowsky’s script for Take Me is strong and lively, with both Healy and Schilling going to great lengths to create a compelling character study of two people who couldn’t be more different than each other, yet at the same time, so very much alike as well. Healy’s performance as the falsely peacocking, out-of-his-league kidnapper Ray Moody is amongst some of his finest work to date. Healy makes Ray into the kind of guy you want to initially laugh at, because we’ve all seen his type before (bursting with a false machismo that’s about as authentic as the hairpiece atop his head), but he grounds the character with such a sense of pathos that makes him easy to empathize with just the same.
Schilling, who most folks might recognize (for good reason) from Orange is the New Black, is feisty and fearsome as Ms. St. Blair, and while I immensely enjoyed her character consistently giving Ray “the business,” there’s a quiet scene that Schilling and Healy share in Take Me’s latter half that became my favorite moment, and a huge part of it has to do with Schilling’s performance. It’s just excellent stuff all around, and I highly recommend seeing it as soon as you can (it’s currently playing in LA/NY and is available on VOD).
Movie Score: 4/5
Tilt: While it may be a little heavy-handed with some of its themes (and a somewhat familiar premise), there was something truly unnerving about Kasra Farahani’s psychological thriller, Tilt, which takes viewers down some deeply disturbing cinematic corridors. Anchored by a captivating performance from Joseph Cross, Tilt follows a struggling filmmaker who has finally reached his breaking point, and we bear witness to his downward spiral as his deep-seeded anger lashes out in some rather horrific ways.
At the start of Tilt, we meet Joe (Cross), who has just returned from a Hawaiian vacation with his pregnant wife, Joanne (Alexia Rasmussen), but the time away from his life in Los Angeles has done little to quell his anxieties over his tanking career as a documentarian, especially because in just a few months, he’s going to become a father. His doubts and fears about both issues intersect at a certain point, and we see how Joe’s inability to face his own impending adulthood pushes him in a violent direction where each vile act he performs shreds away the last remaining bits of his humanity.
Something interesting about Tilt is that it was in production during the hysteria of the 2016 election, which means the story has some distinctly direct parallels to some of the fervor that was happening in our society during that time period. As Joe gets closer and closer to the edge, it’s reflective of how a lot of people engaged in the hype surrounding all aspects of the election, especially on social media, and I thought the connection ended up being pretty fascinating in the end.
There’s no doubt that a lot of Joe’s struggles throughout Tilt are representative of the same issues many Millennials (and even a lot of old folks, like me) grapple with as they start making their way in this crazy world. And before you think this is going to turn into some anti-Millennial rant, it’s not, because I frankly think that they’ve been given something of a raw deal (especially economically), so I don’t think it’s fair to rag on them at all. But really, the questions that torment Joe in Tilt are a lot of the same predicaments many folks in their 20s are facing now—particularly when it comes to matters of finance, marriage, starting a family, and pursuing a profession in a world where a college degree doesn’t immediately equal any kind of success. So, on that level, it’s easy to sympathize with Joe because he so desperately wants to follow his dream of being a successful documentary filmmaker, even if it is ultimately a selfish wish that does very little to benefit his wife or their kid on the way.
Co-writers Farahani and Jason O’Leary do a stellar job depicting a man in crisis while also creating a character that you still hold out a sliver of hope for, because he’s not wholly unredeemable (although the movie’s very last moments come pretty damned close, but I mean that in a complimentary way). Cross is thoroughly captivating here, and Tilt soars on his performance.
While he may not have necessarily reinvented the psychological thriller wheel with Tilt, I think Farahani has found a clever way of deconstructing the “genesis of a psychopath” trope with his confidently crafted exploration of false facades and the horrors that lie just beneath them (with Los Angeles a perfect landscape for this kind of macabre tale). This one really surprised me, much like Joe and his nasty penchant for pain.
Movie Score: 4/5