In 2012, the two-man filmmaking machine of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead shot Resolution, a low-budget brain-teaser that few privileged souls saw, and this reviewer is not among them. But with The Endless, a film that works entirely on its own merits, Benson and Moorhead return to and expand on the world they previously created — and this time, in addition to directing, writing, producing, lensing, and editing, the two also star.
With so much control and involvement, the amount of love these directors have for the process of indie filmmaking is self-evident, but its also obvious on screen. The Endless feels like a film made by people who have fun making films, and for whatever gripes one can summon about the end-product (pretty hard to do), that’s an infectious and commendable quality.
The Endless opens on two brothers: Justin (Justin Benson) and Aaron (Aaron Moorhead), who live together in apparent squalor, with Justin looking after the slightly young Aaron. Ten years previous the two abandoned a “UFO death cult,” and have had trouble getting back on their feet since. One day Aaron receives a tape in the mail, sent from the cult, and asks Justin if they can go back. He reluctantly agrees, and the two set out on a road trip back to the camp, finding things just as they left them, including the un-aged population of seemingly kind folks. Both brothers are intrigued, and as Aaron works to reacquaint himself with friends and an old crush, Justin works to unearth the mysterious force enshrouding the camp.
The tone and pacing tends towards shaggy, but the brothers pick up a few genuine spooks and some nervy excitement in the second half. One immersed in the commune, Justin and Aaron do good work in defining and expanding upon their characters and long-standing relationship. Tate Ellington hands in a subtle, sympathetic performance as the de facto cult leader, Hal, and though few characters get much individual depth, the success of the film’s high-concept premise largely depends on the caliber of the actors, and they deliver. Everything is grounded in the central relationship, and while fraternal resolution is paramount, the film directly addresses fears of growing old and losing the freedom of youth with bright-eyed optimism.
Budgetary concerns explain much of the weaknesses of The Endless. Lensing has artifacts of cheap gear — though this quality occasionally works in a story capacity — and the palate of the film is under-saturated and dreary browns. Sound recording lacks dynamic range and subtlety, although sound design is notably inventive and effective. Beyond gear complaints, the voice of the creators occasionally undermines the character dialogue (which is generally sharp, funny, and believable), and more than a few times characters speak in ways that highlight the artifice of their conversations. One may read this as a desirable stylistic tick, but it plays as timidity. The lives Justin and Aaron live at the beginning of the film also could be developed better, as what we are shown does not suggest the dead-end existence Aaron describes.
Still, the sheer exuberance on display defuses these gripes. Once Justin and Aaron begin to comprehend the gravity of their situation, The Endless unravels spectacularly, as the filmmakers develop their high-concept premise remarkably well given their resources. They’ve coherently created a world that is singular, fantastical, and just a bit wacky, and the peculiar sensation of hope that courses throughout is hard to shake.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.