The Savage Stack - SPRING (2015)

Benson & Moorhead's supernatural romance is one of this generation's great statements on love and existence.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The sixty-fourth entry into this unbroken backlog is Benson & Moorhead's ethereal supernatural romance, Spring... 

Sometimes escape is necessary.

Whether it be from the doldrums of the everyday, or a deliberate dodging of the authorities which dog us in the aftermath of a mistake, the natural instinct to retreat and regroup is not only innate but also imperative. For it's in these acts of retirement that human beings can rediscover and reaffirm what truly drives them. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s second feature, Spring ('15), revolves around such a retreat, as their seemingly unremarkable protagonist, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), jets off to Italy in order leave behind what may be the worst turn of events his young life has ever seen. Yet through this withdrawal, Evan discovers not only the love of his life, but also a newfound respect for the world around him. Arguably the greatest quarter-life crisis story conceived since Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise ('95), Benson & Moorehead’s Spring is a stirring, life-affirming work of idiosyncratic art.

Evan has seen better days. His mother just died from cancer. A crackhead just attacked him in a bar. His boss just fired him. The cops are looking to press charges for the way he defended himself. Even the girl who decides to toss him a pity fuck can’t seem to take five from giving him grief to allow the kid to feel anything besides pain. So, Evan does what any well-off white boy would - books the next flight out of the country to anywhere a plane will take him. After arriving in Italy, Evan meets up with a couple of British backpackers who want to do nothing more than drink themselves into oblivion while chasing the local birds. It’s not entirely what the kid imagined he’d be doing when he smashed that bottle over a basehead’s dome last Friday, but it can’t be any worse than getting stoned and kicking it again with Tommy (Jeremy Gardner), his best bud back home.

Then he spots Louise (Nadia Hilker) - sitting in the square of the small Italian villa where he’s staying - and he's instantly smitten. Why wouldn’t he be? She’s absolutely gorgeous and, upon approaching her in a bar, is revealed to be a woman shrouded in a veil of self-made mystery. She says she doesn’t date, and even after Nadia agrees to share a bottle of wine with him, remains aloof, wanting to know everything about Evan while keeping details about her background just this side of vague. Louise could easily fall into the category of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, but Hilker keeps the secretiveness feeling like it has a motive beyond mere flirtatiousness or bi-polar boy fantasy.

Divulging the reason behind the girl’s vagaries would be giving away part of the fun of watching Spring unfold. There’s a mystery that lies at the heart of the film that's part of the picture's overall point. Yet once said clandestine details are revealed, Benson & Moorhead's movie remolds into an entirely new form. One of the greatest attributes of Spring is the fact that it refuses to take the obvious path other lesser filmmakers would think to travel. This has become a defining attribute of the young directing team’s output thus far: the negation of the ordinary. Both Spring and the duology of Resolution ('12) / The Endless ('18) take existing genre formulas (“cabin in the woods” horror like Evil Dead ['81]; Euro haunts such as American Werewolf ['81] and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession ['81]) and reimagine them in the filmmaking team's image. The trappings are just window dressing to smuggle in ambitious, grandiose ideas about love and existence. It's a trojan horse style of filmmaking that's both evocative and, best of all, totally unpredictable.

In nearly every technical department, Spring is a giant leap forward for Benson & Moorhead from Resolution (which itself was an impressive piece of low-budget innovation). Moorhead’s photography is lush and gorgeous, his camera drinking in the sunbathed Italian locale (sometimes with the assistance of stunning drone work). Where Resolution is contained and claustrophobic, Spring opens the directors’ vision up to a level that feels impossible on such a meager allotment. As it progresses, the set-ups continue to grow, and the movements become more erratic and spontaneous feeling. There’s a sense of experimentation with the form that echoes Evan’s journey of self-discovery, as you can practically feel Benson & Moorhead getting completely comfortable behind the camera. This goes double for Michael Felker’s editing, which speeds Spring up and winds it down at just the right moments (a slow-mo jaunt through the village quad becomes hallucinatory in it loveliness). It’s not often you get to watch artists mature as seconds on their motion picure tick by, but Spring is one of those truly rare treats.

It almost feels reductive to label Spring a horror movie. While there are “creature feature” elements, and a foreboding sense of dread injected into many of the movie’s lush, redolent frames, the picture is ultimately a love story. Spring is swooningly romantic, to the point that the terror film elements pale in comparison. Again, horror acts as a means to an end; a necessary component for Benson & Moorhead to reach their ultimate thesis. Once they do start firing on all cylinders in the film’s philosophy-heavy final third, the minor transitional clunkiness is easily forgivable. Spring is a film that's fueled almost entirely by pure ambition, and those willing to give themselves over to this heart-swelling treatise will be handsomely rewarded.

None of this would work at all, of course, were it not for the film’s two leads. Like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy before them, Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker craft a young couple that you want to root for. There’s a genuine sense of love shared between the two actors, as their teasing gives way to puppy love before blossoming into full-blown romance. Hilker especially is a joy to watch, as the actress pokes and prods Pucci, bringing out levels of depth in the actor that we hadn't seen in years. Pucci has always been an interesting talent, yet hadn't really found a role to fit his boyish vibrancy since starring in Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker ('05). As Evan, he’s putting in impressive work, reminding you that he once held his own against a titan like Tilda Swinton. But beyond sharing genuine chemistry together, the two are also funny as hell, unafraid to verbally joust and play off of one another with ace timing. It's been too long since we’ve had a screen couple this good.

There will be some who are turned off by the somewhat sentimental tone Spring takes and that's fine. By eschewing a traditional horror narrative in favor of opting to make a personal statement about a particular phase of life everyone faces, Spring becomes an animal unto itself; a species of Benson & Moorhead’s own grand design. Much like Zulawski’s Possession, the two young directors are using genre in order to comment on the development of one particular relationship. Yet instead of stewing on the decline of love in the face of infidelity, Spring chooses to focus on the never-ending well of hope that's tapped at an affair’s inception. The end result is a beautiful, bold piece of art that sends you out of the theater with an aching heart and a swimming head — the inexorable current of passion bound to float you for some time in the near future.

Spring is available on Blu-ray and DVD from (the sadly defunct) Drafthouse Films.