On Failure: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution
I’ve been a fan of Ken Andrews’ Failure ever since a feisty punk-rock girl trounced me in a drunken argument, humbling me by showing up my ignorance of the band (later, to ease my wounded pride, she married me). In my greasy, perpetually coked-out and hung-over salad days, I played Fantastic Planet to death, forcing everyone around me to listen to it, whether they liked it or not. Many of the back-of-the-house crew did. What could be, as we said then, more apro-fucking-pos? Ken Andrews’ ironic metaphors felt custom tailored to our lives: “Saturday Savior” was a gloss on the failure of romance, “Stuck on You” was a tribute to the obnoxious pull of pop hooks and heroin addiction, and – my personal favorite – “The Nurse Who Loved Me,” a tragicomic story song from the point of view of a delusion pill-popper who thinks his rehab nurse has “fallen hard” for him. The song features the single finest arrangement of guitar feedback, a towering inferno of Small-Stone phased distortion.
But, aside from glory-days memories and guitar-nerd affection, Failure – and what a perfect moniker – is near and dear to me because they embody a particular aesthetic that’s difficult to capture. You could call it one-off, experimental, aberrational, or mercurial. You could, with only a touch of irony, called it a partial success – though by the calculus of aesthetic exceptionalism, a partial success is a total failure. In my kitchen days, I felt a certain kinship with Failure: they were too smart and too dumb. They were too stubbornly smart to succeed at the winking dumb-act of pop and far too stoned-dumb to market themselves as an art-house noise act.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution is a Failure kind of film. In some ways, it is far too smart to succeed as a horror film, though the film’s premise sets up the kind of low-budget lock-down that powers good B-screamers. Michael (Peter Cilella), an ostensibly successful graphic-designer, returns to his rural hometown in the desert near the Mexican border. He is there in a last ditch effort to get his child hood friend Chris (the very funny Vinny Curran) to kick a meth addiction and go to rehab. Michael shows up as a very high Chris, deep in meth-psychosis, is unloading a pistol at invisible birds. He makes small-talk with Chris, then a half-hearted final plea for sobriety, then tazers Chris into submission and handcuffs him to the wall. This is the Miles David approach to tough love: Chris gets Gatorade, powerbars, and a shit-bucket for the next seven days.
What happens next occupies the center of a Venn diagram of intersecting indulgence, stupidity, and brilliance. Michael, on his daily walks, encounters different people: Mormon-ish cult members, zombie-like halfway house escapees, and a twitchy loan-shark. The miscellaeny – and Michael’s increasingly disturbing disaffection – colors each encounter with a wonderful mix of menace and aimlessness. As the film progresses, something dark starts to coalesce around the edges of the plot, shades of – depending on one’s generosity – Stephen King or Robert Bolaño (Moorhead’s cinematography does service to the stunning desert setting and might encourage us to wager on the latter). This looming cloud is held back by Curran’s forceful performance of Chris, a suicidal addict whose humor is a defense mechanism, not for himself – Chris, in one painful scene, reveals that he understands all too well the existential horror of his life and the lives of others – but for other people. Chris doesn’t want to drag anyone down with him, thus his desert retreat. Chris’s comic persona is an excellent metaphor for the film as a whole; Resolution seems self-consciously performative with the comic slapstick and generic horror spooks as a way to distance the audience from the film’s awful truth.
In the film’s central scene, Michael comes across Byron (Bill Oberst, Jr.), a French anthropologist, stoned out of his mind on an unidentified local reddish plant. Something about Byron’s accent seems just right – Americans are unaccustomed to hearing nihilism without a pan-European lilt – as he waxes cryptic on Michael, explaining (sort of) some of the strange characters Michael has run into over the past several days. Byron tells Michael:
People come here to look for aliens. Ghosts. Cults. Gateways to hell. Windows to other dimensions. If there is something, it is none of these things. Or perhaps all of them.
The film’s conclusion is entertaining and, suddenly, categorically unsatisfying. The film is not a complete feint – there is something out there, responsible for the increasingly threatening events of the film. The film benefits from this revelation, and there is some deferred action – some retroactive ahhh moments – but the ending still feels organic and spur-of-the-moment. In a meta-fictional way, this may be intentional, a commentary on our own delusional needs to narrate the chaotic stuff of life. There is something endearing about this – it’s innovative and amateurish, like a Hysterical Realist trying to pull a frantic tour-de-force of style into a traditional conclusion, or a talented jam-band trying to corral an improvisatory flight into a structured coda. Though it is not my style, I’ll refrain from spoiling the end. I can say that had Benson and Moorhead had pulled it off, this film would belong with Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Jonze and Kaufman’s Adaptation. What surprised me is that, though they did not pull it off, I feel oddly attached to Resolution. As with Failure, I am compelled to get friends, family (total strangers on the internet) to share my investment in it.
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