Debuting at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s latest work The Endless finds the indie directing duo continuing their trajectory as two of the most exciting voices working in genre films today. The Endless is the pair’s largest scope film to date, yet it trades spectacle in favor of a personal explorations of family, love, and sacrifice. That it can do his while still managing to creep out the viewer with one of the more startling and honest exploration of the themes HP Lovecraft should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the duo’s previous works Resolution and Spring.
Moorhead and Benson (who also wrote the film’s script) pull an additional load for The Endless, taking the lead roles as Justin and Aaron Smith, two ex-members of a remote desert commune. A decade earlier, Justin fled the desert, taking his reluctant brother in tow with him. Upon arrival back to civilization, Justin paints a depiction of cult activity, where the members worship death and UFOs while the men are castrated to serve a higher power.
Ten years removed and the pair struggle to make ends meet. They subsist on odd jobs and Ramen Noodles while holding creditors at bay. In order to stay on the benefits that keep them afloat they must attend “deprogramming” counseling where, free from the presence of one another, both reveal deep levels of unhappiness and frustration. Aaron misses the structure of the compound, along with the niceties of fresh, real food and the kinship he felt with the other members. After a videotape sent from the compound lands on his doorstep, Aaron convinces his brother to return for one night, if only to put closure on that time of their life.
The suggestion of a “UFO Death Cult” inspires a very specific set of expectations for viewers. However, THE ENDLESS sidesteps the norm in order to create a much different, more original work that blends Lovecraftian idolatry, science fiction, time loops and family drama. The compound members welcome the prodigal brothers back with open arms. True, while there is something uneasy about a group so far removed from the grid, the fact is these seem more like happy go lucky hippies happy to sell their craft beer and engage in acapella karaoke nights.
The truth is their Camp Arcadia only scratches the surface of the weirdness The Endless has in store for the viewer. Moorhead and Benson create an environment that stands apart from the rest of the world. Dual moons shine over mountaintop horizons. Birds fly in impossible to believe patterns, unable to inhabit wide open yet negative space. Hanging over the air is an unshakeable feeling that an unseen force of nature is watching over everyone for unknown purposes. There’s a impregnable feeling of doom that hangs over every frame of the film, aided by outstanding sound design and ambiguous performances from ancillary characters portrayed by Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington and James Jordan.
Similar to the duo’s previous films, The Endless tackles questions of love and the ties that bind one to another. Resolution examined the bonds of male friendship. Spring depicted the entanglements and complications of romantic love. With The Endless, the directors explore the love two brothers have for one another. As characters, Justin and Aaron exist on opposite end of the spectrum. Justin’s driven by a need for control while Aaron is passive to a painful degree. Justin feels he needs to assert himself over his sibling in order to protect him, and while Aaron goes along with the arrangement, it’s impossible for the viewer to not set the resentment both feel towards the other over these circumstances. One of the central questions of the film is whether these two can move towards one another rather than drive each other away.
The film also concerns itself with choice, and the illusion of comfort it can bring. For Justin, life post-compound is one that could be filled with endless possibility, even as the reality of empty stomachs and empty wallets stare him in the face. He makes every choice for he and his brother without any input and it continues to put them both on a downward spiral. There’s a a stubborn refusal to acknowledge how he’s traded one endless loop for another. “Possibility” is just another illusion, and it’s something that despite his inherent passivity, Aaron has an firmer grasp on. Sure, tomorrow might bring a turnabout of fortune, but the likelihood of it being a xerox of the day that preceded it is the more expected outcome.
One admirable characteristic of Benson and Moorhead’s filmmaking is their dedication to sampling varying genres within one work. A great chef can comb through the cupboards of a pantry and come up with the ingredients for an exquisite meal even if left only bare essentials. In a similar fashion, the duo blend elements of science fiction, horror, family drama, and comedy and bend these tropes to fufill the dramatic arc of their story. They refuse to allow their films to be pigeonholed or easily characterized in order to appeal to specific niches.
While viewers will not need to see the duo’s debut film RESOLUTION to draw their own understanding or enjoyment from THE ENDLESS, it’s recommended you seek that film out beforehand. First, it’s a damn fine film in its own right. More importantly, both films contain thematic and character through lines that serve to deepen one’s appreciation for what Benson and Moorhead attempt with their latest work. The pair’s commitment to smart, introspective and engaging storytelling ratchets up with each successive project, culminating with THE ENDLESS.