Studio: Well Go USA
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer: Justin Benson
Producer: David Lawson Jr., Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Thomas R. Burke, Leal Naim
Stars: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Callie Hernandez, Lew Temple, James Jordan, Tate Ellington
Two brothers revisit the doomsday cult they escaped ten years earlier to discover their beliefs may not be what they seem.
As a fan, I’ve been fascinated with the films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead since their 2012 debut feature “Resolution” (review here). The pair’s M.O. of creating characters who feel like longtime friends from next door and then thrusting them into cerebrally confounding supernatural situations speaks specifically to my interests in Lovecraftian fiction, challenging belief systems, and high concept horror impossibly anchored to some semblance of reality.
As a critic, I appreciate that Benson and Moorhead’s style and subject matter has remained so tonally consistent, they make capsule reviews an easy matter of if/then. As in, “if you liked/disliked their previous film(s), then it’s a sure bet you will also like/dislike their latest effort.” In that regard, Benson and Moorhead have distinguished their unique fingerprint on genre cinema in the same way that you can say names such as Ti West, Ben Wheatley, or Mike Flanagan and immediately have a good grasp on the kind of experience that is in store.
INCIDENTAL CONTEXT CLUE SPOILER
True to the above, it’s simple enough to say, “if you connected with Benson and Moorhead’s ‘Resolution’ and/or ‘Spring,’ then ‘The Endless’ will stoke all the right fires.” What’s more, the directing duo ingeniously plays a card that creatively connects their filmic universe in a manner similar to what M. Night Shyamalan did with “Split” (review here).
Newcomers may be knocked off balance by what might seem like random reveals, although the uninitiated should recover enough to get the gist of the movie’s direction without fully understanding its origins. For dedicated Benson/Moorhead fans going in blind, the hook provides an additional reward in the form of an ear-to-ear grin while slapping hands to their heads in pleasant surprise.
Since I’m already under a spoiler tag, let’s stop dancing around the Deep One in the room. “The Endless” can still satisfy as a standalone film. Yet for maximum appreciation of how deep its design goes, it is in an audience’s best entertainment interests to see “Resolution” first.
Ten years have passed since brothers Justin and Aaron fled a remote commune and exposed it as a UFO death cult. You’d think their lives would be better off without brainwashing, but the exact opposite is true. Aaron is mired in the daily misery of cleaning houses for a meager wage, eating ramen regularly, and having zero friends, family, or social structure.
Aaron was happier at Camp Arcadia. Justin reminds him about rituals of genital mutilation, devotion to an unseen entity, and anticipation of mass suicide. Aaron only remembers songs around the campfire, hot meals, and an encouraging sense of community.
Thinking that his brother needs a firsthand refresher on how off the environment was, Justin reluctantly approves Aaron’s request to revisit their former friends at the compound for one in-and-out day. But one day becomes two and two days becomes three as the siblings end up confronting images, ideas, and explanations causing them to question everything they thought to be true.
From the home-brewed beer passed around like tap water and puffs of pipe smoke from a mysterious red flower, Justin cannot be certain if everything he sees is reality. Aaron is no longer sure if anything his brother says can be believed. As inexplicable visions of impenetrable barriers, repeating events, and two moons in the sky make the situation more haunting, Justin and Aaron start suspecting the commune might have uncovered a secret more mind-bending than anyone can comprehend.
Because of its setup, “The Endless” will be compartmentalized as a cult thriller, even though the film isn’t really about the cult or how it affects who Justin and Aaron are. The movie’s main theme concerns how these two men relate to each other through a mystery they don’t necessarily realize they are even trying to solve.
Much of the material involves metaphors about things commonly considered mundane. Benson and Moorhead’s strengths are in exploring the unknown underbelly of the everyday and extracting something seemingly sinister, something that defies basic conceptions of what we assume as fact for the sake of constructing lives we think we are supposed to live. That’s an abstract description. Trust that “The Endless” is far better at conveying this feeling of existing simultaneously in reality and surreality through sight and sound than I am with written words.
As usual, Benson and Moorhead take us there through affable people whose experiences we want to share, no matter where their journeys may lead. It’s not vanity or necessity casting for the directors to double up as the stars. Aaron has a softness eliciting sympathy without being pouty. You can believe he is smart, yet still understand his reasons for wanting to revisit a cult because of how he conveys his conflict. Justin completes the other side of their coin. Cracks in his cynical skepticism come from an honest portrayal of someone who has struggled with occupying different personas. These two have a great deal of unspoken backstory and making so much of it come across in under two hours is no easy feat.
There isn’t enough space to recognize every supporting player deserving of similar praise. I’ll briefly single out James Jordan for his deft blend of cryptic intensity and comic relief as a cracked man whose condition has to be seen to be believed.
It’s both a boon and a hindrance that Benson and Moorhead are so reliable in their storytelling approach. I watched “Spring” (review here) right before “The Endless” and immediately noticed how seamlessly they flowed into each other aesthetically, even though their plots and settings are different.
That initially sounds like good news considering how well “Spring” was received. To a degree, it is. “The Endless” has a similarly hypnotic beauty to its subtly building terror and a texture of maverick spirit other horror films just don’t have.
But Benson’s writing still loiters in moments with good banter that isn’t always useful. Moorhead’s camera still gets distracted with non-sequitur inserts of randomly writhing insects. And their editing rhythm is still occasionally out of synch, jumping between parallel scenes (why do we see Justin approaching the crying woman only to cut away to another setup before later picking up where we left off) and letting the runtime pack on a small beer gut.
With “The Endless,” Benson and Moorhead continue the dynamic evolution of their narrative creativity. Now it is time to expand their cinematic vocabulary with the same amount of daring. Otherwise, they may become caught in their own loop where the audience they continue impressing is the same one they’ve already won over. Their visionary voices are too important for only a small crowd to hear.
Review Score: 80