One could argue that Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead’s (admittedly sparse) oeuvre was but a foundation built to make their latest—and most personal—The Endless, possible. But to do so, it could also be critically cheapening the brilliance of their previous endeavors, 2013’s Resolution, and 2014’s Spring. Instead, let’s credit the filmmakers for the incredible dexterity they demonstrate in constructing another extraordinary work of genre fare that’s enjoyable as hell on its own, but also directly buttressed by the audience’s potential familiarity with their previous films. And the less said about that last part, the better, because an unspoiled viewing of The Endless is a distinct pleasure all its own.
Apparently not content with merely pulling double-duty writing and directing, Benson and Moorhead this time also feature themselves in front of the lens as brothers Justin and Aaron Smith. (Hey, the names were already there. Why change the them on the trailers and dressing rooms?) The brothers, having fled the “death cult” they were members of 10 years prior, unexpectedly receive a mysterious videotape from one of the cult’s members, announcing that they’re all doing fine, and very markedly not-dead as expected. This event reveals the stark differences in the brothers’ personalities. One is the skeptic (Justin), the other (Aaron) a believer (or least open-minded). Aaron manages to convince Justin to take a road trip and see their old cult brothers and sisters one last time, if for nothing other than a hot, non-ramen dinner.
What the brothers discover is less the UFO Death Cult of (mainly) Justin’s memory than a hippie-dippy commune, full of warm welcomes and delicious home-brewed beer—and definitely not poisoned Kool-Aid. Neither Justin nor Aaron can deny there’s something at the very least off at and around the camp, but as Aaron develops a bond with fashion designer Anna (Callie Hernandez), and Justin is determined to justify his cynical suspicions about the commune and its members. Smiling Hal (Tate Ellington) is an odd one, but harmless. Magic trick-loving Shane (Shane Brady) is about as laid-back as a perfectionist gets. Tim (Lew Temple) is strikingly forgiving of Justin for ruining the group’s reputation following the exposé which ran following their “escape” from the camp. It’s all simply too perfect and convenient for him, and before he knows it, they’re staying well beyond the agreed-upon one night.
One can’t describe the plot much more than that without spoiling the film’s sci-fi-flavored reveals but suffice it to say that the tension ratchets up beautifully, whether through enlightening arguments between the brothers, or through the same skillful editing and cinematography that Benson and Moorhead have exhibited in their past efforts. Speaking again of those past efforts—the duo’s move in front of the camera reveals that the two have been hoarding some legit acting chops this entire time. They really nail the patter of brothers whose connection is close but contentious, very much echoing the rapport between Michael (Peter Cilella) and Chris (Vinny Curran) in Resolution. It’s obvious the filmmakers know what this kind of relationship looks, sounds and feels like, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of this chemistry to the film.
In the last decade, it’s tough to think of many filmmakers who have had as good a run in the arena of genre fiction in independent film as Benson and Moorhead. Given the well-established tradition of big studios tabbing lesser-known genre directors for tentpole genre efforts, it seems likely only a matter of time before the two get their shot at a franchise or fledgling shared universe other than their own. In the meantime, enjoy The Endless—Benson and Moorhead are on a roll.
Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Scott Moorhead
Writer: Justin Benson
Starring: Justin Benson, Aaron Scott Moorhead, Tate Ellington, James Jordan, Shane Brady, Kira Powell
Release Date: April 21, 2017 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.