Each day this week, the staff of The Dissolve will pick an underrated horror film for your Halloween-related viewing pleasure. Today, Tasha Robinson recommends Resolution, an intimate character drama with an unusual supernatural twist:
Matt Singer: With all of horror-dom at your fingertips, Tasha, why did you choose Resolution?
Tasha Robinson: There are a few things I really love about it. One is the premise, which opens up a vast number of questions I strongly relate to. The film starts with two old friends: Michael appears to be a stable family man, and his former best friend Chris is a drug addict, cheerfully killing himself with meth in an isolated, disintegrating cabin in the woods. So Michael goes to the cabin and chains Chris to the wall, telling him he’s going to watch over him for a week while he detoxes, and once all the meth is out of Chris’ system, he can make a clear-headed choice: rehab or finishing his protracted suicide.
There are so many ideas built into that premise, so many questions that the film touches on. How much do we owe our old friends, based on what they used to be to us back when they were entirely different people? How much social discomfort and disapproval are we willing to endure in order to try to do the right thing? Can we help people who refuse to be helped, or refuse to ask for help? All of that speaks really personally to me, and I’m fascinated by the way the film addresses it through the narrative, without ever openly asking these questions.
But better yet is the way the film plays with and subverts expectations, both from the genre it starts out with, and from the genre it becomes. I guarantee you that people who haven’t seen the film, and just read that description, will already have an image in their head of what the film is like. That image is nothing like this film. It’s a smart, self-aware movie, made by people who know horror films and know what their audience expects, but aren’t necessarily going to deliver. It isn’t a typical modern horror film, full of predictable rise-and-fall tension and sudden shocks and familiar plot points. It’s unpredictable in a way that really threw me the first time through, and there are few things I respect more in a film.
Matt: There’s a lot going on here; you’ve described the relationship between the two main characters in detail, but you’ve barely alluded to the story’s more horrific elements. How do you think the more supernatural aspects enhance the addiction plot?
Tasha: The tension between those two stories—the supernatural weirdness and the addiction plot—is what drives the film. The addiction plot keeps the two men isolated, willing to stay in a decrepit house where unsettling things are happening. It keeps them both distracted—Chris obsessed with his own pain, Michael so used to shrugging off Chris’ pleas and ploys that he also deliberately desensitizes himself to the import of what’s going on around him. It ties them together, and ties them into their situation.
It’s also, incidentally, a big horror-movie tease. Look at Resolution’s poster: a man’s arm chained to a wall, shot in that grimy, desaturated style so common to the Saw and Hostel films and their followers. Here’s a horror film about one man chaining up another man and putting him through physical torture—a living hell in an isolated place—but it isn’t a torture-porn film. It isn’t about delighting in suffering or gore. It isn’t “extreme cinema,” forcing the audience to endure as much emotion as possible to confront their own fears. It’s just aware enough of the genre’s visual language and broad tropes to play on them a bit. And it uses the supernatural aspects to play on other horror tropes, too. I haven’t gone into detail there because I don’t want to give too much away. This is a film that thrives on surprises, after all.
Matt: Absolutely, though I think we may have to have a brief spoiler discussion at the end of this piece because now that I’ve seen the film, I really want to talk about it with someone.
Of all the movies the staff picked this week, Tasha, yours is the only one that had gone completely under my own radar. Where did you see it, and were you immediately smitten? Or did this film take a while to get under your skin?
Tasha: I saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012, with a perfect audience: a packed house that was respectfully silent, but responsive enough that I could hear all the little noises that means a quiet horror film is working. I do love the sound of a crowded theater of people all gasping at the same time. This is, honestly, a fairly subtle film. People who watch it at 2 p.m. in a sunny room with periodic bathroom breaks, or while idly texting their friends, aren’t going to find it scary at all. It’s the kind of film that only works if you let it weave its spell: Watch it in one sitting, in the dark, late at night. Bring friends.
I go to the Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland every year, so I’ve seen a lot of movies like this: Micro-indies made by a handful of ambitious friends, trying to communicate ineffable cosmic horror on a $2 budget. It’s hard to do right, and whenever I see it done well, I feel a real kinship with the filmmakers. This film, particularly in its last moments, instantly won me over: I felt that kind of connection to the people who made it. I was straight-up smitten.
Matt: I agree; I’ve seen plenty of movies with similar structures and budgets, but few that pull it off quite so effectively. I read some reviews of the movie after I watched it, and found that almost all of them compared Resolution to The Cabin In The Woods, not just because of their similar settings, but because of their similarly clever use of well-worn genre tropes. How do you think the two compare?
Tasha: Both of them play very consciously with horror tropes; both are self-aware movies with meta aspects. The big difference for me, apart from their obvious divergence in budget, is that Resolution plays it straight. I love The Cabin In The Woods; it made my top 10 list for 2012. But it’s an arch movie in many ways. It’s playful, it’s even silly, even when it’s killing off people the audience cares about.
There’s virtually nothing arch or silly about Resolution. It’s conceptually lighter than most horror films; it doesn’t try to choke viewers with terror, or overwhelm them with blood. Instead, it uses its meta aspects to walk right up to the edge of something really scary, then thumb its nose at viewers. Noel Murray mentioned in our Monday Conversation about effective horror tropes that by now, he knows that when a character is positioned in a certain way onscreen, with empty space to one side, something horrifying is about to suddenly fill that space. Resolution’s directors are well aware of that kind of expectation, too, and they never stop playing with it. Or with the trope of horror characters making stupid choices that drive viewers crazy. Or with the trick where a handheld camera follows a character from a distance, and the audience automatically assumes they’re looking through the killer’s eyes. The Cabin In The Woods deconstructs horror tropes, and has its characters explain them out loud. Resolution just uses them to unnerve the audience, then laugh at them a little for being so unnerved. One thing both films have in common: They work best on people who’ve watched a lot of horror already, and think they know what they’re in for.
Matt: Do you have a favorite scary moment from the film?
Tasha: There are definitely ones I don’t want to give away. But here’s an example of something the film does that I love, and that drives me nuts at the same time. Michael is cooking outside on a camp stove, talking to his chained-up buddy through the cabin’s open door. Digital video suddenly pops up on his laptop, with the two of them talking—the conversation they were having a second ago. The implication is that someone was filming them from right outside the door. They both see it, and Michael freaks out a bit. Then he goes on talking to Chris, casually, with his back to that wide-open door. Gah!
Look, the arrival of mysterious video implying a stalker nearby sent the characters in Michael Haneke’s Cache into a massive spiral of fear and paranoia. That seems much more reasonable than the way these schmoes deal with something similar. They’re so cavalier about their own safety, in spite of being strangely surrounded by dangers. That’s what’s fascinating about this movie to me: The Cabin In The Woods is about people who realize they’re in a horror film, and behave accordingly. Resolution is about people who refuse to acknowledge they’re in a horror film, and constantly behave as though their world is relatively mundane and safe. It’s uncommon. It’s unsettling. It’s definitely unsafe.
Matt: That’s well said. Okay, last but not least, for purely selfish reasons and with full warning of SPOILERS to come: Resolution’s resolution is deliberately ambiguous, but I’m so curious to hear how you interpret the film’s final scenes. Spill it!
Tasha: I freely admit my interpretation is heavily influenced by the aforementioned years at the Lovecraft Film Festival; an unseen but clearly horrifying presence, to me, is automatically something Lovecraftian, which is to say, something so terrible, it can’t be comprehended, and so powerful, it can’t be resisted. I feel we got our subtle clues from all the stories, as Michael puts it, “with fucked-up endings,” littered in various formats around the house. There’s something out there that likes stories, but only the ones that end violently, and with terror. (You could call it a spirit, or a manitou, since it’s on a Native American reservation. You could also call it a typical horror-movie audience, which expects a messy ending, and might be disappointed with Chris just walking off peacefully to rehab after all that.) So as I see it, the spirit offered Michael and Chris various horrible endings for their story, and they didn’t like any of them, and tried to navigate toward a more peaceful happily-ever-after one. And they got it, at least for a moment. It’s up to you to decide whether the spirit then kills them because it’s finished with them—it got its story, it got its ending, it’s ready to move on to new toys—or because it’s angry, and displeased with the story. Or maybe just because all its stories end violently, and with all its pawns out of play, it needed to provide the necessary ending itself.
It isn’t quite a lady-or-the-tiger moment, more of a lion-or-the-tiger moment. But I think the ambiguity there is pretty meta, and consciously layered. Within the narrative, the characters are facing something unknowable, and I doubt they ever get their questions answered. Outside the narrative, the audience is in the exact same boat: Facing the unknowable, walking away with questions, and having to decide whether they liked the ending of the story, and exactly how and why it ended. Did it satisfy you? Before you answer, I’ll make one last point: The film’s title is a pun, having to do both with Michael’s resolution to rescue Chris against his will, and the resolution of the story. What did you think?
Matt: The title also relates to the resolution of the mysterious photos and videos they keep discovering as well, which always seem to offer just enough blurriness to explain away their origins. I like your Lovecraftian monster theory, particularly the idea that the unseen spirit at the end of the film hasn’t been trying to help them reach a happy resolution at all; that’s the sort of cruel and nasty twist that appeals to The Twilight Zone fan in me.
You’ve drawn some excellent comparisons to The Cabin In The Woods, where Goddard and Whedon gave us two characters, in Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s Sitterson and Hadley, who stood in for the filmmakers as the sadistic puppeteers pushing these fictional characters towards their doom. In that same spirit, perhaps the beast that emerges just behind the camera to tower over our protagonists in the final shot of Resolution isn’t a foul, otherworldly demon at all. Maybe it’s just a very tall movie director.