Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead serve up a meta meditation on cults in this smart genre-blurring thriller.
“I don’t know why we haven’t been able to make a living, or make friends – meet girls.” During a regular ‘deprogramming’ session with a counsellor, Justin is wondering how, 10 years after he managed to extract himself and his younger brother Aaron from a rural “UFO death cult”, they both seem to be caught in an endless cycle of low-pay drudgery, bad food and sexlessness in the city – as castrated metaphorically as Justin claims their fellow residents back at Camp Arcadia had been literally.
Drawn back to the cult by a mysterious videotape message (in a redundant format) which appears on their doorstep at the beginning of The Endless, Aaron hopes to find there what has been missing from his life ever since, while the more cynical and controlling Justin tags along, determined not to let his brother get trapped all over again.
The Endless calls to mind the likes of Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Sacrament and The Invitation, dramatising the fluid frontier that separates America’s worlds of faith and secularism. In a sense, the film is just that – a literal cult movie in which one person’s belief system is another’s repressive regime of obedience. But once Justin and Aaron have reached the backwoods area where Camp Arcadia is located, it quickly becomes apparent that they have entered an irrational, abstract space, whether it be a desert Shangri-la whose inhabitants do not appear to age. Or is it a topographical Rubik’s cube where the physics of time and space operate in unusual ways? Or perhaps a giant Marienbad-esque petri dish where human subjects and their stories of petty struggle are placed under a monstrous microscope for repeat observation?
Here, surrounded by a one-time ‘family’ who would be only too happy to accept the brothers permanently back into the fold, Aaron and Justin must face some home truths, and decide what they really want out of life and each other. The fact that Justin and Aaron are played respectively by writer/director/producer Justin Benson and his co-director/co-producer/DoP Aaron Moorhead is a clear sign of reflexivity to come. Indeed, The Endless is a meta-cinematic reflection on the repeatability and rewatchability of movie narratives, delivering its message in multiple formats of film and video.
Not only this, but its stories of looping eternity warp and fold themselves back in on Benson and Moorhead’s own past filmography – both Spring and especially their feature debut Resolution, whose ideas and even characters are recycled here. It would be a mistake to dismiss all these references to the filmmakers’ past works merely as sophisticated in-jokes – in fact they contextualise Justin and Aaron’s crisis as just one of many human struggles to find identity, meaning and truth in a life which can seem at best shitty and at worst a puppet show manipulated by invisible powers.
The brothers and their new hosts, after all, are Pirandello-esque characters in search of an author, and ultimately subject to the inscrutable judgement of an unseen viewer who, just like any cinemagoer, is beyond the comprehension or control of the on-screen players – or indeed of the filmmakers.
Like all of Benson and Moorhead’s films, The Endless ventures to a place where genre’s boundaries are at their most blurred, and where human dramas play out on eerie supernatural stages that amplify the otherwise everyday stakes involved in evolving from one’s own behavioural patterns and confronting one’s own mortality.
It is beautifully shot and edited, with constant, elaborate match cuts serving to expose the loosening of spatiotemporal boundaries, and sinuous handheld long takes slowly revealing the impossible unfolding all around. The visual effects are subtly unsettling in the way that they conjure an ever-present, palpable ‘it’ whose nature remains unknown. Sound too is used to conjure a paradoxical location where everything operates like a broken record jumping and skipping across the same locked groove.
All this is a masterful defamiliarisation of what appears to be the most ordinary locale, as far from gothic artifice as can be imagined, but resonant with the metaphors of existential dread. Needless to say, the film is as thought-provoking as it is surreally funny and creepily brilliant. For The Endless somehow manages to be at once thoroughly original and almost a sequel, revisiting old themes and scenes while making that revisitation its own central theme.
Elsewhere, diehard Benson/Moorhead fans intrigued by throwaway references in their other films to a character known as ‘Shitty Carl’ will not be disappointed by his return here. Hal (Tate Ellington), the most garrulous of the Arcadians, assures Justin that “nothing here ends.” Yet with The Endless, Justin and Aaron do finally find a resolution of sorts – even if they never quite get the girls.
The Endless premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on 21 April, 2017.
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