Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have been working together for so long now, they might as well be brothers. Six years after the release of Resolution, the filmmaking duo has returned—both thematically and physically—to the site of their first feature film, expanding upon its fascination with Lovecraftian beasts that lurk in the dark and inexplicable hiccups in the fabric of space-time. The result is The Endless, a film that blends such disparate elements as apocalyptic doomsday cults, roadside Mystery Spots, quantum physics, and brotherly love into an ingeniously heady brew. And although The Endless works just fine as a standalone film, looking at it in the wider context of Benson and Moorhead’s work highlights another, more meta theme: the desire to return to an earlier, simpler period in one’s life, and relive those glory days forever.
Benson and Moorhead star, appropriately enough, as brothers Justin and Aaron, who as the film opens are surviving on ramen noodles as minimum-wage house cleaners in Los Angeles. Their lives are as dull as they come, but they’re guarding a very unusual secret: As teenagers, they escaped a UFO cult bent on mass suicide. Justin, who led the exodus and has viewed his brother as both a responsibility and a burden ever since, takes a darkly cynical view of their time in the cult. Meanwhile, younger brother Aaron is nostalgic for what he remembers about his childhood, which is sunshine, good food, and a sense of belonging.
To appease his brother, Justin agrees to an overnight trip to their old home, a commune called Camp Arcadia deep in the California countryside, to reckon with the past. What they find there is confounding, as it turns out that not only did the cult members not commit suicide 10 years ago, but also they appear to be living a utopian existence fueled by tasty home-brewed beer and wholesome arts and crafts. Even more challenging is the incontrovertible fact that something unearthly is going on in the hills outside Camp Arcadia, where a baseball casually tossed up into the air takes several minutes to land and a 19th-century miner eternally relives the same five seconds in an anguished loop. Justin, being a bullheaded sort, is intent on finding an explanation for these phenomena, and it’s his quest that drives the film’s increasingly phantasmagoric second half. The nature of these forces is, thankfully, never fully revealed, but instead parceled out in intriguing little pieces, answering some questions while raising others.
What puts The Endless ahead of many indie genre films of its type is not only Moorhead’s skill as a cinematographer, but also the judicious way in which he and Benson apply their presumably limited budget. The Endless does rely on CGI to visualize its supernatural elements, but these are applied subtly enough that there are only a couple of shots that look fake enough to be off-putting, and the filmmakers alternate them with sweeping overhead shots of the desolate California countryside and some good old-fashioned in-camera trickery.
The verisimilitude extends through the performances—again, a thoughtful (and practical) choice, casting longtime collaborators as brothers—and into Benson’s script. He rotates in secondary characters, both for comic relief and expository purposes. 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. With every film they make, Moorhead and Benson refine their genre-bending, unapologetically cerebral style, and The Endless is no exception. By using settings and characters from their earlier work to forge a new creative path forward, they’ve made a film about confronting the past and embracing the unknown. How meta.