Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (interview) are big horror fans, and it shows in their third co-directed feature film, The Endless. They also star, playing brothers Justin and Aaron, who escaped what Justin called “a UFO death cult.” They’re in deprogramming, which they’ve attended in the ten years since they got out, but their lives are a mess. They’ve got no friends. Their car’s battery is dying and they have to choose between replacing it and affording ramen for lunch. They clean other people’s houses for a living. And in the midst of this, they get a tape of Anna (Callie Hernandez) talking about the ascension arriving.
Aaron doesn’t remember as much as Justin does, but he’s had a crush on Anna since he was a teenager. He manages to convince Justin to go to the cult’s homebase, Camp Arcadia, for a day. But when they arrive, the day sprawls in more ways than one. And of course, odd things start happening. No one at the camp remembers sending them any tape. No one has aged since they left. And there’s a third-person point of view that the movie never offers a clear-cut explanation for what is watching everyone there and sending them photos of what it’s looking at.
That ambiguity is one of the strengths of The Endless. Benson and Moorhead move Justin and Aaron around, having them interact with different characters who have different explanations for what’s going on. As suggested by the title, things are never-ending. Everyone at Camp Arcadia is caught in loops of varying lengths. But the different explanations and strategies for dealing with it is what makes the movie such a pleasure. The “UFO death cult” is full of artists. They use the time to strive toward artistic mastery, with a magician misquoting the 10,000 hours for mastery rule Malcolm Gladwell made famous in his book Outliers. Other characters urge Justin and Aaron to resist, to run, to escape if they can.
Aaron lays out the metaphor of the film clearly when he says, “There’s not much difference between being stuck in a loop and being stuck repeating the same shitty day, over and over, like back home until I die.” The different strategies Benson and Moorhead encounter all double as strategies to deal with the monotony of everyday life. You can embrace it and try to enjoy the suffering or you can fight it. Either way, in the end you’ll die. It’s straight out of existential philosophy, which the film visualizes in its most striking scene.
The cult’s de facto leader, though he denies being such, Hal (Tate Ellington) calls everyone out to a hill for what he’s termed “The Struggle.” There is a rope, floating ten or twenty feet in the air, in a black sky. Hal calls for the different members to fight against the rope to see how long they can pull against it. They laugh as whatever is on the other end of the rope beats them easily. It’s straight out of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, where he famously concluded that Sisyphus was happy as he repeatedly pushed his stone almost to the top of the hill before it rolled back down for eternity because he’d learned to take pleasure in his suffering.
It’s not the only reference to existential philosophy. Carl (James Jordan) complains about not being able to sleep in his loop. Something Jean Paul-Sartre also included in his absurdist play on hell No Exit.
The Endless also loops into Benson and Moorhead’s first film, The Resolution. They’re exploring the same creative territory, and on a more literal level, Aaron walks back into the cabin from the 2012 film, where the characters are still there trying to break themselves out of the loop they’re in.
On a down note, I am caught in a loop, where I’m constantly pointing out the lack of diversity in films. There is only an extra or two and one character of color in a cast of fifteen or twenty.
While Benson and Moorhead are covering similar ground, they’re clearly improving as storytellers. While Resolution did good work with humor and the high-concept narrative devices Benson and Moorhead are fond of, it struggled with character growth. By the end of The Endless, Justin and Aaron have grown as people and strengthened their rocky relationship. The film has a genuine feel good moment in a brutal ending.
The Blu-ray also includes more than an hour of special features, including an admirably honest “Making of” that talks about how they secured funding for this film Spring and Resolution as well as an open discussion of Benson’s mother’s death by suicide, which took place while they were filming. There are some comedy features included as well. They make clear that Benson and Moorhead are constantly honing their craft, whether it be feature films or five-minute comedy videos.
The Blu-Ray and DVD will be available on June 26th.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer(s): Justin Benson
Stars: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, James Jordan
Release date: June 26 2018 (Blu-Ray and DVD)
Studio/ Production Co: Snowfort Pictures
Length: 111 minutes