Synopsis – Two brothers return to the cult they fled from years ago to discover that the group’s beliefs may be more sane than they once thought.
My Take – It’s disheartening to see how studios just tend to push big films with known faces out in the market, while smaller films, who mostly release simultaneously, tend to go unnoticed from the public’s eye. Case in point, it’s very likely that most of you haven’t heard about this low-budget science fiction film, from directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, which released a few weeks ago on VOD and rental services, and has been sitting with 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Here, the directors duo deliver their fourth full-feature collaboration following their Bonestorm segment in the horror anthology film V/H/S Viral (2014), Spring (2014) and the acclaimed Resolution (2012), in the form of a film which is filled with aspiration and holds some interesting ideas, while adding itself to a steadily growing pool of brain-stimulating sci-fi films, such as Netflix’s brilliant Annihilation, that aren’t afraid to pose lots of questions and which rely as much on well-defined characters as they do special effects.
What puts this film ahead of many indie genre films of its type is that it blends disparate elements such as apocalyptic doomsday cults, roadside mystery spots, quantum physics, and brotherly love into an ingeniously tasty mix. Although the film works just fine as a standalone film, looking at it in the wider context of directors Benson and Moorhead’s work highlights another, more Meta theme: the bond of brothers. While it can be considered as a risky move, considering how the two writer-directors also play the leads as well, and even adopt their own first names for the central characters, it come with a doubt that the duo have crafted a true original which takes more chances than it has to deliver a think-piece that will keep you guessing for the entirety.
The story follows two brothers, Justin (Justin Benson) and Aaron (Aaron Moorhead), who after leaving a UFO death cult around 10 years ago, live out their mundane lives below the poverty line, as professional cleaners, scrimping and saving to keep their old car running, while trying to adjust to life away from the carefully managed world of cult life. However, when they receive a mysterious video tape with a message from Anna (Callie Hernandez), a woman they knew at the commune, the two are relieved to find out their fellow cult friends are still alive, but disturbed to learn that something called the Ascension is approaching. Reminded of the sense of security they felt at the camp, the friendships they made, and especially the good food they can almost taste, Aaron suggests that they visit the commune for one day and a skeptical Justin agrees to keep his brother happy.
Once they reach the camp, they are surprised to find themselves greeted well by the camp’s de facto leader, Hal (Tate Ellington), but what’s more surprising is that life in the camp has remained pretty much unchanged. Indeed the camp’s residents seemed to have defied ageing and continue their gentle life around the campfire, making art, beer and handmade clothes pretty much as when the two men left. Finding a sense of belonging, Aaron is convinced about staying on for a few more days, however, Justin remains resistant and wary of being sucked back into the cult, and when the bright desert sun sets on the camp, it becomes clear that there is something else lurking in the impenetrable darkness that surrounds them. Something is watching and waiting, and exerting a powerful and strange control over things.
I know the plot sounds a little far-fetched, and in some respects it is, however, the film is cleverer than it first appears. On the surface, it is a taut, well-crafted horror story about a possible death cult, as we have some mysterious rituals, a missing husband, and seemingly silly camp activities that may or may not have a darker purpose. But when it becomes clear that something else has been in play here, it begins to mess with our heads in terms of perception of time, choice and the preference of horrific acts over tedium. While the first half of the film is dedicated to building an atmosphere of unease. Traditional jump-scare opportunities are subverted, leaving the tension unbroken as the men explore the camp and surrounding woods.
The intensity begins to peak around halfway through: after that, what initially seemed unknowable takes on the shape of an over elaborate puzzle, although viewers of Resolution (2012), will certainly have a head start. Here, the directors make brilliant use of the viewer’s own self-doubt. When the brothers note that a particular cultist is at least 20 years their senior, we are forced to think that, perhaps, we have the wrong one in mind. One cultist is passable with card tricks, although his show becomes alarming when one of his tricks involves throwing a ball up in the air only to have it not come down, one of the group’s rituals involves a game of tug-of-war with a rope that disappears into the darkness of the night sky and the older brother shrugs and says it’s just someone in the shadows standing on a ladder, until it becomes clear it’s not.
The implications of what that means lay heavily over the scene. Birds gather peculiarly in the sky, strange hemispheres form themselves in the desert, and the night ends up displaying three moons. We know we’ve really gone over the edge when a madman appears alive beside his own hanged body. It steadily becomes clear that the film is to do with being stuck in a loop, which might, have seemed like an unsatisfactory pay-off had the directors not exploited their meager resources with such skill.
This is not a typical in-your-face horror film that leaves blood splattered in your lap, but a much more cerebral experience in which the characters are people you can recognize from your own life, people that you can care about. Although some of the scares come across as being contrived and unconvincing, there are enough thrills to keep you involved from beginning to end. But once the big reveal comes, everything goes dark, and the suspense truly becomes horror. These can sometimes be jarring, but Justin and Aaron’s brotherly relationship, as complicated and fraught as it may be, keeps things grounded and some grounding is definitely necessary by the end, when things get really weird.
But surprisingly, the film’s main focus is on the brothers, and how far their relationship must stretch before it can be repaired. Here, the intimacy is fraternal, which perhaps speaks to how directors Moorhead and Benson feel about each other. They may not be brothers themselves, but you can’t spend your career making films with the same person over and over again without developing an abiding, unspoken bond with them. It’s easy to imagine them arguing over on-set minutiae, and it’s just as easy to imagine those arguments forming the bases for a story line here. Considering its low budget, the aesthetic of the film is gorgeous, and becomes only apparent during the dramatic conclusion.
Here, directors Benson and Moorhead utilize the lack of resources by keeping the mysterious forces unseen and the strange incidents understated. This makes the occurrences much more mysterious and threatening. In simpler terms, this film is somewhat of a metamorphic experiment, seamlessly flitting the spectator between a varieties of emotions and striking a hit in all of its respective areas. It subtly manipulates its low-budget trappings to create a sense of scale, one that benefits the spectacle in the brief moments that it hits and in turn, the aura of mystery that emanates from scene to scene is augmented by shrewd suggestions of a larger threat. The film walks a difficult tightrope, but does so with high confidence.
However, while the craft of this film may be clear, certain drawbacks are clear as well. In one of the featurettes of the film, directors Benson and Moorhead reveal that they initially made a list of their filming skills and ideas for what they wanted to do in their next film, and the aforementioned here was then constructed from this wish list and it shows. There’s too much being thrown into the mix without some non-neat ties gathering it together. However, while some viewers might appreciate that there are no clear answers, a casual film goer may find it upsetting during the first time viewing.
Performance wise, both Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead play their respective roles with understated and naturalistic flair. While they never quite capture the awe and confusion of Justin and Aaron’s reaction to the film’s odd science to the most realistic of effects, they do accurately sell their personal plight, as Justin and Aaron struggle to come to terms with each other’s reasons for returning to/rejecting the cult. There’s a comedic edge to their relationship as well that cleanses the palette when the exposition threatens to take over. The film also features a great deal of supporting actors like Tate Ellington (Quantico), Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant), Lew Temple, James Jordan, Shane Brady, Kira Powell, and David Lawson Jr. who are all effortlessly strange but incredibly charming. On the whole, ‘The Endless‘ is a refreshing and mind-bending science fiction thriller that manages to provide a solid and creepy experience.
Rated – N/R
Run Time – 112 minutes