Framing the Unknown: The Mind-Bending Films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

Framing is everything, especially in the world of cinema. Films are bound by how the camera frames people, actions, and relationships. Filmmakers take advantage of the restrictions of the frame to highlight specific details and omit our view of others. The separation drama What Maisie Knew (2012) is deeply rooted in the perspective of its child protagonist, and no information is revealed to the audience that isn’t witnessed by Maisie. In Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), radically different testimonies of a crime are all brought equally fairly to life by the camera. The viewer’s perception of reality is filtered through the lens. We see what the camera sees, and only what the camera sees. What’s outside the frame, what’s behind the camera, is unknown, and that in itself can be frightening.

The films Resolution (2012) and its tangential follow-up The Endless (2017) fixate on this anxiety. Their directors, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, have been quietly making low-budget, mind-bending genre films for the past decade, covering directing, writing, cinematography and editing credits between them. What binds Resolution and The Endless together is a shared antagonist – a looming, malevolent, invisible presence that hangs above the San Diego boondocks with the ability to loop time and predict the future. In Resolution, reality starts to unpick around two estranged friends, Mike (Peter Cilella) and Chris (Vinny Curran), when the former travels to a decrepit cabin to help the latter quit his drug addiction cold turkey. In The Endless, two brothers, Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead), travel back to a cult called Camp Arcadia that worships the monster, from which they escaped ten years prior. This unknown presence is central to Benson’s and Moorhead’s dissection of narrative framing, and by giving the unknown a say in the narrative we’re watching, the filmmakers argue that how we look at a story is crucial to understanding who’s in control.

The films both operate with tiny budgets, so while we never physically see the monster, like Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), we get to see from its perspective. Its creeping, ominous presence punctuates the films, but more than showing this point-of-view to the audience, it’s also shown to the characters. The monster’s perspective manifests in physical recordings scattered around the boondocks; photographs, records, and video-tapes. “It’s how it communicates with us,” the cult leader Hal (Tate Ellington) tells us in The Endless. “With images.” In Resolution, Mike discovers pictures and recordings that show violence that hasn’t happened yet being inflicted on him and Chris, making him question who the operator of this perspective is. Benson and Moorhead establish within the film itself an alternative viewpoint to the camera, their story is being framed by a separate, unknown lens with its own ulterior motives. If someone else is filming our characters, that means a different story has been designed that they don’t know about. While Chris and Mike, as well as Justin and Aaron, attempt to wrap their heads around the enormity of this unknown entity, the unknown has already begun framing them.

This image is from The Endless. Aaron looks up at a rope that leads up into the night sky and pulls it.
Aaron attempts The Struggle. Image courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

The power of this monster’s lens is exemplified through acts of narrative reframing, one of which is integrated in the cult’s rituals in The Endless. We see an activity called The Struggle, where one person has to engage in a tug-of-war with a long piece of rope that stretches up into the darkness. It’s a clear metaphor, the participant’s success or failure depends on their ability to overcome their internal issues. Aaron, willing to fall back into cult life, succeeds, but Justin, plagued with fear and resentment of the Camp, fails dramatically. But at the film’s climax we see The Struggle from the monster’s perspective on a videotape recording. It gazes down from the darkness at the tiny figure pulling on the rope, and we get the feeling that Aaron’s success was arbitrary, and the monster only let him win because it felt like it. Aaron never really had any control over the monster, his victory was hollow. The power dynamics of the scene are wildly different depending on what perspective we see it from. The position of the camera has reframed our understanding.

While in The Endless the monster’s viewpoint is mainly used to show an alternative perspective, watching Resolution we get the feeling that the film we’re watching is itself shot from the monster’s point-of-view. The presence of the unknown is solidified and signposted in a series of complex fourth-wall breaks, the first of which comes from a pack of alpacas. In the opening, while tracing Mike’s drive to Chris, the camera rests on a pen of them, uniformly staring at us. Like the strange townspeople Mike passes, they seem suspicious of the outsider rolling in. But the alpacas aren’t consciously breaking the fourth wall, you’d have a hard time explaining to them what a fourth wall is. They’re just staring at something being pointed at them, and, in this case, it’s the camera.

This image is from The Endless. Two men walk through a meadow and approach a skull-like statue.
Aaron (left) and Justin (right) explore Camp Arcadia. Image courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

This is how the breaking of the fourth wall is characterised in Resolution as the camera is given physicality within the film. It leads Mike into dark recesses by making noise that he reacts to and follows. It makes the cabin floorboards creak, causing Mike and Chris to look where the cameraman is standing. And after showing us an exterior shot of Mike walking into the cabin, the monster shows Mike and Chris the exact same shot on a laptop. The operator of the narrative has a presence, and this presence is made obvious to the characters. They become aware that they are being framed, but are clueless as to who is doing it.

More than just playfully infringing on the diegetic world, the monster’s perspective insists it is the definitive, domineering framework we are to see the narrative through. In one of Resolution’s more clunky moments, Mike starts describing the fragmented recordings he’s found as “stories”, even before he knows of the monster’s existence. This description doesn’t quite fit what we’ve seen of the recordings – they just look like abandoned home movies – but Benson and Moorhead’s intention is clear. The monster who’s transmitting these images is being framed as a storyteller, the authoritative point-of-view in a narrative. The recordings of his perspective show that it possesses the most fundamental tool to cinematic storytelling – a camera. Camp Arcadia worships the recordings, they stage excited viewings for newly discovered tapes and hoard the others together in a make-shift shrine. It’s not hard to understand why they revere them so much – the beaten VHS tapes and scratched rolls of film they prize seem antiquated and outdated, and therefore authentic. They look historical, and historical means they happened, relics of a concrete, defined past. Visual, recorded evidence is nearly irrefutable, if there is filmed proof of something happening, you’re likely to believe it.

Specifically, Benson and Moorhead argue, visual evidence is more concrete that personal recollections. In Justin and Aaron’s journey back to Camp Arcadia in The Endless, they argue over whether the Camp was a cult. Justin lists the obvious signifiers, “Uniforms. Redefining words. Calling death ascension,” but Aaron is unconvinced, only remembering the warm, welcoming atmosphere. As they grew up in the cult, they experienced the same things, but Justin’s perspective is now more tinged with external context that reframes his understanding of his experience. Aaron frames it all differently, romanticising his time there because of his dissatisfaction with life outside the cult. Personal accounts are mutable and fluctuating, easily influenced and subject to change, and the monster exploits these discrepancies to assert control over the characters.

This image is from Resolution. Mike and Chris site opposite one another. One sites on a worn out mattress, the other on the floor.
Chris and Mike sit in the cabin. Image courtesy of Tribeca Film.

This is mainly achieved by undermining our characters’ agency in the narrative. At the climax of Resolution, Chris is tired of Mike’s attempts to save his life and says, “Please just let me kill myself the way I want to kill myself.” A slide projector behind them then starts up on its own accord, and projects an image of Chris’ lifeless corpse. Just as he expresses a wish to end his life on his own terms, the monster shows him visual evidence of his death. How much agency will Chris have over his suicide if the monster says it knows what it will look like? Showing Chris his body is showing him the end of the narrative, no matter what choices Chris thinks he’s making, the story design has already decided what outcome will manifest. The monster’s perspective seems absolute and unquestionable, looking back historically at things that have not yet happened, and the characters all merely exist within the boundaries of its narrative. These narrative boundaries are explicitly specified when Justin comes across Chris and Mike in The Endless. The two men are now aware they’re trapped in a time loop, and are forced to replay the events of their own narrative for the monster’s appeasement. In an act of metanarrative, the characters of Resolution engage in a performance of Resolution. The characters have lost control over the narrative because they can only view it from the inside, whereas the monster proves its perspective is holistic. Control is only in the hands of those who can see the totality of the whole story.

Within each film, two opposing narratives struggle to come out on top. There are the intentions of our main characters – to help Chris get clean, to get closure from Camp Arcadia – and then there are the designs of the monster, who forces its way into our characters’ lives and imposes its own narrative structure on them. By characterising this monster as a filmmaker, Benson and Moorhead imbue it with power to frame its subjects in whatever way it wishes – it devalues the characters’ autonomy and insists on its own power. The terror of the unknown is extrapolated by the filmmakers, because not only do we never get a glimpse of this looming presence, through the power of its perspective it has started to manipulate the characters into a story of its own creation.