The Endless Review [Tribeca 2017]

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless is an assertion of talents in the most curious, explorative way. Minds are unlocked, souls are bared and fears are shared. The duo’s feature debut – Resolution – introduces an almighty presence with the power to paralyze, and in The Endless, they grab its demon horns. A Lovecraftian quote about our strongest fears being of this “great unknown” leads directly to the introduction of two familiar faces (Benson and Moorhead’s Resolution cameos), and from there, reality becomes their sandbox. A human notion of cyclical apathy that numbs the senses is put on trial, while their magnificent mindf#*k teases and intensifies with poetic command. Never bleak, always engaging and cognizant on levels that other films can’t even pretend to understand. That’s how BenHead does it.

In addition to multiple on-and-off-set tasks – probably including craft services – both Benson and Moorhead reprise their roles as cult-peddlers Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead). Well, technically ex-cult-peddlers. It’s been ten years since Justin and his brother Aaron separated from a “UFO Death Cult,” but their lives haven’t exactly improved. Aaron is sick of eating ramen and cleaning houses, living the ho-hum life Justin maps. He misses the home-cooked communal meals and kumbaya campfires. This feeling grows when a mysterious video appears in the mail, with a message from a current member. After some protest from Justin, Aaron gets his wish and the brothers drive into Camp Arcadia for an overnight visit. One man hopes to expose the lies of a categorized cult, while the other searches for feelings of home – but what they discover are truths that’ll forever alter their remaining days.

When the film opens with Lovecraft’s paranoia assessment, a second quote materializes directly underneath. “Friends tell each other how they feel with relative frequency. Siblings wait for a more convenient time, like their deathbeds.” This is the setup for brotherly quarrels that push Aaron towards Arcadia, in search of the “family” Justin doesn’t prove to be. But think about your own siblings (or relatives). Those whose love is unconditional, bonded in blood and not just word.

Benson and Moorhead explore complex emotions that misinterpret Justin’s constant instructions for control-freak coldness, or indulge Aaron’s idealistic fantasies as child’s play. Miscommunication brings them into a commune whose false god may be a vicious actuality, yet even as doomsday clocks tick away, the silliest banter conveys a message of commitment (that characters ignore). Humor warms, sacrifice reminds and actions speak towards the slighted feelings Aaron or Justin embellish. They may not be brothers in real life, but Benson and Moorhead plunge effortlessly into sibling dynamics at the core of madness.

Then there’s the Arcadia UFO Death Cult community, led by all-smiles Hal (Tate Ellington). Tim (Lew Temple) brews killer beers as their main export, Anna designs clothing (Callie Hernandez), Shane (Shane Brady) flaunts his magic training. Seems too perfect, right? No one is castrated as Justin once confirmed in his post-cult exposé (ruining the commune’s reputation), nor did they drink a poison-laced punch. Everyone looks happy, healthy, and much younger than their actual ages permit – and that’s where the mystery begins.

The Endless stands alone as an isolated feature if need-be, but for enhanced enjoyment, watch Resolution first. You’ll familiarize yourself with Benson and Moorhead’s already-established cinematic universe, which is where Justin and Aaron first appear. Paradoxes and time manipulation explore an invisible deity already thought to exist, as Hal furthers a narrative about this all-seeing, all-around-us overlord. Communication passes through retro methods of recording (tapes or film reels appear with glimpses into someone’s past or future), but there’s more interaction this time. One of Arcadia’s favorite pastimes is called “The Struggle,” which is literally a tug-of-war between you and the unknown (half the rope is shrouded in darkness, with no possible method of telling who/what is resisting). It doesn’t get more on-the-nose or symbolic.

Then again, there’s still such calculated chaos to Benson and Moorhead’s grand equation. It’s not all smack-your-face metaphors. A simple illusion of mirror imagery ushers in Justin’s sci-fi investigation, one that pulsates with cerebral unrest. Tim’s knockout Hefeweizen isn’t the reason for everyone’s youthful physicality. As the “unknown” becomes more tangible, questions of free will and controlled destinies lay a foundation for heady, out-of-body wonderment with arresting ferocity. Scares through smarts engage next-level storytelling that connects to the very fabric of man. As a result of working with such thoughtful, incapacitating themes, you can get away with offscreen deaths and minimalism  – something that Benson and Moorhead have mastered. Avoid spoilers and go in blind-as-a-bat (after seeing Resolution). Then receive Hal’s good word.

Aside from acting, Benson and Moorhead share the heft of movie-making duties. Benson penned the screenplay, they both direct, Moorhead acts as cinematographer, they both edit – men of many hats, who wear them proudly. Moorhead’s photography direction evaluates drop-dead gorgeous surroundings that sprawl with no finality, capturing Aaron and Justin as tiny blips on an otherwise eternal radar (love the overhead lake snap). Hazy, heated roads kick yellow dust while collaborative direction unravels a fragile spool of cinematic twine with nimble, patient fingers. Editing is tight, effects boast crazed ingenuity and intrigue is always tickled at the perfect moment (three cheers for Shitty Carl, awestruck tie-ins, creeping levels of tension). Cinematic control never slips, despite a most treacherous slope where one misstep could domino something far more cataclysmic.

The Endless is a masterful cinematic echo chamber with incomprehensible depth. You will feel, laugh and be forced to address emotions shared with all on-screen personalities. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead aren’t making movies to entertain at base value. Life is this scary, ever-threatening beast that offers no real answers, and their films address the beauty of unpredictability head-on. Fears of not knowing. Hypnotizing comforts of repetition. Scenes are linked with real human experiences, even if you’ve never visited a “cult” or interacted with a malevolent God-being. Few filmmakers of today execute on low-fi genre puzzlement with such deafening power, and that’s no mistake. If Resolution represents Benson and Moorhead’s mesmerizing introduction and Spring is their masterclass in romantic horror, The Endless cements this movie-making tandem as two of the most exciting, energetic and revolutionary directors in American cinema. Disciples of Linklater and Lovecraft, who flip a finger to uncertainty and pave their own golden road.

The Endless Review [Tribeca 2017]

The Endless beats the drum for magnetic, riveting indies built on asking questions with the utmost curiosity (and hard genre thrills to boot).