Digging into the composition of this well-crafted thriller from 2014.
Executing the fundamentals with precision and a bit of cleverness is how you make classics. I recognize that these are basic elements of film: visual story telling in conjunction with a well-acted script. There’s an execution of these elements that elevates Spring from enjoyable genre entry to something really special. It’s a visually arresting flick with a unique approach to a typical genre narrative. The story foundation is a mix Chthonic horror with a simple boy meets girl tale. The script ranges from earnest to sad to creepy to sweet to funny to profound in a completely natural way. I wouldn’t say they’re subverting a narrative, exactly. They work with the genre tropes to the fullest of their ability as they explore areas of common human experience in a fantastical way. It’s really tightly made. Every shot composition actively works to support the thematic elements. Every secondary character is employed actively as a foil for some dynamic the film makers are trying to explore with each scene.
What is Spring? It’s a Drafthouse-distributed film by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead starring Nadia Hilker and Lou Taylor Pucci. Basically, it’s about a young man who makes his way to Italy, battles monsters, and finds love. It’s so much more than that. If you haven’t seen this movie, I strongly encourage you to stop what you’re doing. Treat. Yo. Self. Watch Spring.
Spoilers ahead, gang. I’m going to explore what the movie is talking about and some of the ways the filmmakers accomplish that. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll definitely have some plot points spoiled.
What is Spring all about? It’s a love story focused on the challenges of overcoming our baggage when building a new relationship. Through that, Benson and Moorhead get into discussions about the determining role our past has on our future. Life is defined by our series of connections. They necessarily shape us in ways we can’t always anticipate. In fact, a few connections down the road we may not even remember who we once were. No one really likes the idea of being permanently defined by our present. Change is a terribly difficult thing to embrace and master. A future defined by change is as freeing as it is terrifying. If we want to live our lives to the fullest, we must relish the next step.
As we encounter new characters, their back stories are designed to support the film makers’ examinations of these themes. For example, our POV character Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) meets a farmer, which happens to be a profession known for its understanding of growth planning. The farmer, Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti), is a master of caring for existing growth and creating something new out of the old. But, he’s lost his way trying to create a new life for himself after his wife was killed in a car accident.
Evan also meets an eldritch monster designed to embody all of our evolutionary twists and turns. Our monster’s power is eternal youth at the expense of an impermanent “present” self. It is terrified of being confined by mortality. These characters explore different areas of a similar problem: how to handle mortality.
Benson and Moorhead are incredibly strong visually. Spring was shot in Apulia. Because of that gorgeous location, it’s easy to think that, naturally, the shots should be simply beautiful. This leads me to two points. First, the process of making something appear to be simple ‐ and beautiful ‐ is rarely uncomplicated. Second, holy crap they made the most of their location. When asked why Italy, Aaron Moorhead shared that “on a story level, you can kind of juxtapose the beauty of Italy with the grotesque.”
That’s the essential element to their approach to the visual aspect of Spring. They aren’t simply showcasing the gorgeous setting. And it’s more than just adding the grotesque to their shots. (Although, they do succeed wildly with that.) It’s the “story level” aspect of the quote I’m interested in. They’re thinking of their environment as a way to frame and propel their story.
Ultimately, their talent with the camera is a great advertisement for Apulia. Legitimately, I’m pricing flights to go to there. But, there’s more to it than that. Having just parted ways with his British travel mates, Evan stares at something old in the hopes of finding something new to him: purpose.
In most cases even when we are seeing strictly environment, the context of the shot is still directly relevant to the emotional heart of the story. Evan’s encounter with a local woman, Louise (Nadia Hilker), compels him to abandon his travel mates. Their relationship quickly progresses to the physical stage. So, check out this image which comes after Evan and Louise do the deed, but before they have their second encounter. I’d say that’s a relevant visual display of the emotional state of our main characters.
They quite successfully use their shots to layer in thematic elements. For example, they’ll show you dissimilar images as a way to demonstrate the significance of a detail. So, what does that look like?
The above two shots are shown in a perfect transition. I really like the detail of Louise holding open her eye in preparation to place the contact as it preserves the different shapes of the fruit.
Prior to the transition shot above, there’s an exchange between Evan and Angelo about the art of grafting fruit bearing tree limbs onto different types of trees. That is, we can add new, different fruitful items to our old life. When we do that, our roots stay the same but we have changed as a whole. By explaining the Lorange Tree and then transitioning that shot to Louise’s eyes, Benson and Moorhead are hanging a subtle but effective lantern on Louise’s nature. Louise is the Lorange tree! Or, maybe it’s more polite to say the Lorange tree is Louise? Any road, they’re telling us that Louise embodies that idea. However, at this point in the movie exactly how that is so is still mysterious and unknown to the viewer.
The Mysterious Unknown is an area in which Benson and Moorhead excel. That’s true across all their work, but particularly so in Spring. First, Louise and her nature is a perfect mysterious unknown for the cinema. She’s a totally unique character and fantastically creative work on their part. That newness is engaging. Second, and this is crucial, they don’t spend the movie hiding the mystery. If a movie is about the twist, then you may well enjoy it the first time but it won’t be that impressive on the fourth watch. When the twist augments or enhances the thematic elements, all the clues dropped from the beginning to the end play as detailed layering on subsequent watches.
At the beginning, I mentioned that classics are mostly about perfect execution of basic elements. Movies generally deal in relationships, right? Otherwise it’d be 85 minutes of someone sitting in a white light room doing nothing. So, as I say the following, understand that I recognize relating with the world around us is a simple, necessary fact of existence.
For a movie about a really sweet romance, Benson and Moorhead make a point of showing a series of different types of relationships. At the beginning of the movie, following the death of Evan’s mother, Evan has some lovely interaction with Tommy (played by Jeremy Gardner). Tommy is a great friend, but he doesn’t make for the kind of relationship that “completes” Evan. You know? I mean, spiritually. Tommy tries to help Evan out, but the best he can do is start a bar fight and remind him to use his dead mom as an excuse to demand a one night stand. That’s not what I would call building up your friends.
I think of Tommy as the representation of Evan’s more youthful indiscretions. Bar fights. One night stands. Fun, but uncomplicated. That’s hammered home later in the movie when Evan calls him from the pay phone for advice. Evan literally calls Tommy, but figuratively it plays more like Evan is consulting an outmoded version of himself for advice. That phone call helps him realize how ill-equipped that version of himself was to deal with anything complex. Or, at the very least, that it is no longer suited for his current state.
Angelo is such a great character. I’d be happy to work on his farm. He’s a generous and kind man. He likes the futbol. He shares his knowledge of farming and language. And he seems like a surprisingly interesting conversationalist. And, again, Benson and Moorhead make wonderful use of their set design. Angelo’s kitchen is gorgeously designed and shot. It’s a painting worthy design. But, it also visually demonstrative of a man who had dialed in his life. The essentials are there. You can imagine him living there comfortably with his wife. But, without his wife it’s suddenly obvious that it’s very lonely.
I also really like that in a lot of Angelo’s scenes there’s space in the shot for another person. In the two above, you could easily see another person there. Angelo is half of a whole, now. He’s struggling to deal with the loss of his wife and what that means for his future.
I want you to keep that shot of Angelo on the right in your mind. We’re coming back to that in a moment.
There’s a major scene about two thirds of the way through the movie where Evan witnesses the raw scope of Louise’s situation. And it is glorious, with really terrific effects and some outstanding reaction-shot acting on Lou Taylor Pucci’s part.
But, the part that makes it wonderful for me is that they cut from the shocking reveal to a post-cleanup sit-down at the dining room table. They have a wonderfully awkward moment as they both try to digest their current situation. That doesn’t go so well and Evan winds up storming out. There’s an amazing single take that happens from Louise’s apartment all the way to the square. It’s an intense burst of emotion from Evan as Louise chases after him while struggling to help him understand and process everything he just witnessed. But, all of it is Louise’s character reveal. And it’s a lot of information to process.
Maybe this is intentional, maybe it isn’t. Just look at that star fish. The above shot is after he’s discovered the unvarnished truth about Louise. He’s just finished his phone call with Tommy. Remember that photo of Angelo crying? Well, Evan’s turned around from that phone call and seen Angelo standing in front of the church, clearly weeping. When the camera is on Angelo, it pans down to his hand and we see he’s missing his wife, his other half. Angelo‘s tears over his wife help Evan realize loss and uncertainty isn’t as sad or as scary as it looked initially. At the very least, Angelo is fortunate to have lived a life with his wife. He’s a different person for that experience. And while he may be sad for her loss, it’s only because he’s clearly got so many loving memories to look back on.
When we come back to Evan, he’s standing in front of a store with a starfish like design hanging on its wall. We started this movie with Evan dealing with the difficult loss of his parents. The death scene with his mother is haunting. He’s lost a part of himself. And he isn’t sure how to handle that loss. Who is he now? Loss has defined him for such an extended period of time that he’s uncertain who he’s going to be. Well, if a future of change is terrifying, one beautiful piece to that is that we have the ability to regrow. So, in that instant, the starfish seems to be an essential metaphor.
That’s such an intrinsic element to the movie that I feel like the placement of that piece is at the least serendipity upon which they deliberately capitalized.
In another example of excellent, extended sequences, Benson and Moorhead have called out the church scene as one of their favorite creations of the movie. I’m fully on board with that assessment. Getting that location wasn’t easy for them and it was completely worth it. But, they’re doing more than show off beautiful places in far away lands. There’s a lot going on in it. There’s character and relationship building in the dialogue. Evan is profoundly curious if Louise has any insights on the infinite. There’s immediate danger as Louise is undergoing more frequent and violent transformations. There’s a really great background shot of her scorpion tail coming out for action. There’s also the danger of discovery as there are other parishioners in the church with them.
“Fear of the unknown makes a lot of really pretty stuff, though.”
It really does. Louise’s story of fleeing through the ages from the hostility of the world towards women is captivating. Their discussion of the infinite is fun. I enjoy the simplicity of having Louise, of all people, explain away the nonsense of vampires, zombies, and witches. And for all that, it’s still pushing forward their conversation about whether the unknown, but limited future is something Louise can bring herself to invest in. Exploring all of this in the context of the church forces faith into the conversation. Not exactly in a religious way. But, practically speaking, they’re struggling with putting their faith in each other that everything will work out.
The church scene leads directly to the above where Evan makes his strongest happily-ever-after pitch to Louise in a room honoring long-dead women. I love the environment for this scene. A crypt for Evan’s pitch on the value of mortality. My pitch would be something like: “Have you seen The Fountain?” But, that’s me. The truth is, though, Louise isn’t being irreverent or flip. She’s brought Evan here to point out the stark choice she’s facing. Is Evan ready for a commitment like that? Test isn’t quite the right word for it. But, Louise is using the place as a way to determine whether he has really considered the inevitable end. This interaction earns him an invite to where she grew up.
You guys. I cry at the start and close of Spring. And I’m really appreciative for the journey. The earth moves. Is that volcano active? You are G Darn right it is.
This is my favorite shot in the film. To me, it’s everything the movie is summed up in a frame. We all have a past. Some of it is even a mystery to ourselves. All in, Spring is a movie about hope for the future. There’s an optimism to it that I strongly embrace. It’s a grounded, reasonable optimism. When I finish it my mindset is that while things may get difficult, being open to change and commitment and new positive experiences can help ease that difficulty.
What about you? Am I projecting? You know I’m in the bag for movies on love and life and death. I’m a big proponent of living life with a partner. Am I just the target audience here, or do you see some universal truths being discussed? Isn’t this movie totally gorgeous? Let’s chat about it in the comments.