A cabin in the woods, far away from the rest of civilization. A happy couple on the surface with deeper issues at their core. An estranged family dynamic. You’ve probably seen lots of films with these exact plot points, but Scott Friend’s TO THE MOON plays with those themes to create something that’s both simple and extremely complex in this new thriller.
Boasting a small cast of only three people on screen, this film is a character study at heart, with three actors who unravel together throughout the 82-minute runtime. Scott Friend pulls triple duty as director, writer, and star of the film as Dennis Lotz, an actor who’s on a retreat with his wife Mia (Madeleine Morgenweck) as he tries to kick his cocaine habit. The couple gets a single night alone before Dennis’s brother Roger (Will Brill) shows up uninvited to the cabin their family owns and brothers share together. Taking the opportunity to make peace with his brother, he tries to help them relax with hallucinogenic berries. What follows is a movie based around family tensions, secrets, and a blur between nightmarish delusions and reality.
The first thing I noticed with TO THE MOON is how great it looks. The cinematography, color grading, setting, and costuming all look great. The sound design is also wonderful. At times it’s missing intentionally which adds to the secluded feel of the woods and at other times it feels like it’s bleeding out from the hallucinations these characters have. What sets this film apart, and kept me watching, was the chemistry and acting between each of the film’s three on-screen actors.
Friend and Morgenweck have such a palpable romantic chemistry (probably because they are real-life partners) and I felt for their marriage as they worked through a wild few days at the cabin. Friend’s work as an addict hoping to regroup only to see him fail while taking his brother’s “gift” was stressful to watch. Stressful in the ways you want to see in a good thriller. Dennis seems like such a good person and slowly turns into an insecure and selfish man.
Morgenweck’s Mia, who’s recovering from her own issues, is selfless and puts Dennis first. She draws him a bath when he’s not feeling well. She’s the kind of loving, nurturing, beautiful wife that most people would dream to have in their lives. The two actors together share moments of both love and torture, joy and anger. I felt like I understood these two characters and how they would interact on a day-to-day basis. They felt like every newlywed couple you’ve seen but also people with very misunderstood and traumatic histories together and separately. It was absolutely a pleasure to watch them play off of each other throughout.
Will Brill brings a totally different dynamic to TO THE MOON. There is a slight unease in Roger despite how helpful and patient he seems. I like how comforting the character can be and how easygoing he is, while still maintaining a bit of authority over everyone even if it’s unintentional on his part. He also seems to be hiding something. You can see it in his eyes as he works through conversations with both Dennis and Mia. I don’t know if I’d want to spend time with him in the woods, but I can’t put my finger on why.
There are also several themes that come up in TO THE MOON including Dennis’s desire to live the busy city life versus the simplicity of the woods. Dennis gets into multiple conversations or arguments about the subject. Another is based around religion which I personally don’t think this story needed, especially in some scenes that featured red robes. It felt like it muddled the story more than it added. Outside of that critique, I thought every theme and relationship within was masterfully executed as we slow burn to a wild last 15 minutes, one that feels both earned and unsettling.
I’m surprised that this is Scott Friend’s writing and directing debut. He and his crew built so much out of so little, something I’d love to see more of in a film industry that seems to indulge in bloated casts and big-budget spectacle. It was refreshing to sit with characters and be a part of their lives for a while as they worked through their personal demons. TO THE MOON is a good movie about a bad trip.
TO THE MOON is now available on demand.