The Endless opens on two brothers that are stuck in a rut. Ten years ago, they escaped from a UFO death cult, and this event has succeeded to both impede and define their existence to this day. After receiving a mysterious videotape from a member of the cult who claims they've achieved "ascension", younger brother Aaron (Moorehead) implores his brother Justin (Benson) to return for a short trip in order to achieve some sort of emotional closure. Justin reluctantly agrees, and they drive back to a very present commune that welcomes them with forgiving and strangely unchanged arms. As their stay extends, strange events and characters emerge, altering the brothers' relationship with what they believed of the cult.
It's difficult to talk about the overall plot of The Endless while conveying exactly how this movie feels and how it diverts expectations. Whatever you might go into the film thinking after hearing the descriptor "UFO Death Cult" is inevitably going to be very different than how both the film opens, and how it continues. The Endless is able to get successively creepier and knottily compelling as the film goes on. By the end, it offers a fascinating idea that is able to somehow overcome any of the plotholes that inevitably pop up. It goes down a rabbithole (or several wormholes) of ideas, and it's there in that sort of incredibly unique storytelling where it feels most like Shane Carruth who has created the incomparable stories in Primer and Upstream Color with limited budget.
Writer Benson understands (as we see with the opening quote), how the unknown and the unseen are far better for our fears and imaginations than anything that special effects of any budget can create. The Endless thrives with what is unseen, not because the creators feared the money it would require, but because we're far more unsettled by it (consider, for example, how much better Signs is before that last act). What visual effects they do employ are effective, and always work as an imperative to the story rather than a cheap thrill.
Film viewers who caught Benson-Moore's debut Resolution will see some familiar faces, and The Endless develops that previous world more fully, although both films stand alone well. It's more of a revisit for the directing duo because they were still so caught with the possibility and meaning of the first. Benson is certainly innovative in his writing, one example being in that he asked Moorehead for a list of his random skills and was able to weave a believable thread to cohere them -- this is apparently the story behind the pivotal use of a knot in the story. There's an unsteadiness in various aspects of the art, including the camera holding and the often flickering lights that create a vignetting, that add to our encroaching fears in the story. For a story that deals with eternal life, we get frequent, jarring cuts that create the effect of losses of our own time or as if the viewer is experiencing memory loss or gaps of time that are eaten away.
Despite the bizarre, Benson also handles the cyclical nature of normal life well and what it can take to break out of an endlessly repetitive life or whether either choice can be a kind of death. Although he writes in the brothers' dynamics and his intent is to make it a focal point, the character development there is weaker than it should be. There was more camaraderie in the brief glimpse of a relationship we see with the cabin characters from Resolution than for the two brothers. Whether this is due to the lack of acting experience or the lines is difficult to say. It's also hard to judge how old the brothers are supposed to be in their initial time at the cult, because they use the same actors for all of the scenes that are supposed to take part in the past. Therefore, some of the plot or the visual oddities lose their impact, such as when the two brothers come back to the camp and remark on everyone's still youthful appearance.
However, for whatever obvious flaws that are bound to crop up, the ingenuity of the storytelling vastly makes up for it. Benson's Lovecraftian tale set amongst a character-driven story of two brothers who are trying to break free of their past in different ways serves a completely original and refreshingly preoccupying film. It's the kind of art that makes one want to see everything in the dual director's ouevre and look forward to what's to come from the pair in the future without reservation.
The Endless starts playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown on April 27.