Dirs: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead. US. 2017. 112 mins.
In their 2012 debut feature Resolution, directors Justin Benson (who also scripts and edits) and Aaron Moorhead (who also photographs) cast themselves in tiny roles as members of a blissed-out UFO cult on the periphery of the claustrophobic cabin-in-the-woods drama. Having made the well-received Spring in the interim, the team returns to the woods of Resolution and daringly promote their former walk-on characters (glimpsed in video footage from the earlier film) into the leads. It’s an ambition which might lead to hubris, but both co-directors manage nuanced performances.
The overall premise of The Endless promises a Lovecraft-level mythology and the possibility for many more stories
A little overextended for the straight-ahead genre market (a trimmer, 100-minute cut reputedly exists), The Endless is a demanding, rewarding picture with moments of unusual terror and awe, offering a science fiction/horror scenario on a literally cosmic scale which boils down to a study of a complicated sibling relationship.
At the outset, brothers Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) are working dead-end cleaning jobs and failing to make much of their lives. When a mysterious obsolete tape arrives from the Arcadia Commune, Aaron haunts yard sales to find a device which will play it rather than spend the money on a new car battery – a plot thread which will come back to bite when escape is a priority.
Raised in the commune after being hauled out of a fatal car wreck as children, Justin eventually persuaded Aaron to leave – branding the gentle, if strange folk ‘a UFO death cult’ and claiming they practiced a castration ritual. However, Aaron has fonder memories of decent food, human warmth and the vague promise of a better life after an ‘ascension’ which doesn’t seem to involve death. Justin agrees that they visit Arcadia for a day – which naturally extends, and not only in the sense that Aaron wants to stay longer.
All of the team’s films to date put relationships under stress as an everyday situation is exacerbated by the supernatural – two old friends isolated as one tries to help the other beat drug addiction in Resolution; a holiday romance that survives the revelation that one partner is an inhuman shapeshifter in Spring. Here, time fractures, an unknowable being hovers over all, a dozen strange stories take place at the cult compound (perhaps setting up further visits to this world) and many tiny details suggest extradimensional intrusions … but the focus is on whether wary Justin (Benson) is being overprotective of his more open younger brother Aaron (Moorhead).
When they arrive in Arcadia, the group’s talkiest member is maths whizz Hal (Tate Ellington), who claims not to be the leader, while Anna (Callie Hernandez) formerly had a maternal interest in Aaron which now seems more sexual … and none of the commune have aged since the brothers left.
Arcadia encourages individual talents, all of which are faintly sinister (brewing an addictive beer, drawing dark pictures, unerringly accurate archery) and a couple of members - like the unspeaking ‘Smiling Dave’ (David Lawson Jr), who reputedly drilled a hole in his skull to attain a permanent high but probed too far – are decidedly offputting. Also on the fringes of the group are a distraught woman (Emily Montague) who leaves futile post-it notes asking for quiet, and strutting, angry ‘Shitty Carl’ (James Jordan) who contradicts Hal’s claim that no one has ever committed suicide on the property by having his own hanging corpse in a shed.
Rituals reflect the presence of an unseen, unknowable force – with which the Arcadians play tug-of-war as a rope extends to the sky – while a localised optical illusion means that there are two full moons (like eyes) in the night sky and a third is appearing to fulfill a prophecy. Even so, the meat of the drama as Aaron’s attempt to get out from under the wing of his brother – who has misled him on key elements of their backstory – and Justin’s questioning of how far he’ll got to protect a kid who might be naively endangering himself.
In the mid-section of the film, the brothers split up – with Aaron succumbing to the embrace of Arcadia and Justin discovering the other enclaves of broken time and insanity in the district. The Endless even intersects with Resolution, as Justin arrives at the cabin to find the leads of the earlier film (Shane Brady, Peter Cilella) still going through their own cycle of storyline.
The notion of the shared cinematic universe has become a branding exercise at the major studios, but Benson and Moorhead join other auteurs – Quentin Tarantino, M. Night Shyamalan – intent on building and populating their own multi-film universe, with the added frill that the overall premise of The Endless promises a Lovecraft-level mythology and the possibility for many more stories.
Production companies: Snowfort Pictures, Pfaff & Pfaff Productions, Love & Death Productions
International sales: XYZ Films firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Thomas R.Burke, David Lawson Jr. Leal Naim
Executive producers: Frederick Paff, Robert Paff
Screenplay: Justin Benson
Cinematography: Aaron Moorhead
Production design: Ariel Vida
Editors: Justin Benson, Michael Felker
Music: Jimmy Lavelle
Main cast: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple, Kira Powell