The tranquil but penurious lives of brothers Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) and Justin (Justin Benson), who were once part of a doomsday cult, are disrupted by the arrival of a video tape from Anna, who’s still in the cult and references an upcoming “ascension”. Aaron suggests that they return to the cult for just “one day, one night,” to get “closure,” and possibly find out why Anna sent them the tape. When they arrive, their experiences challenge not only their own personal values but their very outlook on the possibilities of existence.
There are few elements of this movie with which Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson weren’t involved: to wit, either singly, jointly, or in conjunction with others they are the film’s crafty directors, engaging lead actors, cinematographers, editors, writers and producers. It’s an impressive display of film-making multi-talent, and I’m glad to report that beyond being admirable on its own grounds, has here resulted in a fine feature. The Endless is a compelling and deeply philosophical character drama, a blend of cosmic horror and science fiction I haven’t seen done quite this way before. From start to finish it relies on the specificity of Moorhead/Benson’s vision, and the degree to which you buy into this vision in the first half hour or so will determine the intensity of your overall experience. “Come on,” you may find yourself complaining, “would they really ever go back to a place like what Justin described to the media? How dumb are they?” And yet they do go back, and within the context of their dead-end jobs and crushingly asocial routines, it makes a kind of sense. These siblings live together and work together and, yes, even cut each other’s hair. Notably, the only thing they don’t appear to share are their visits with a psychologist, explicitly to achieve “deprogramming” in Justin’s case. One of the film’s two opening quotes is: “Friends tell each other how they feel with relative frequency. Siblings wait for a more convenient time, like their deathbeds.” Justin and Aaron may be friends, but they’re most definitely siblings.
The long drive to the cult grounds—soon referred to by Aaron as more of a commune—involves a telling stop at a roadside memorial. The scene is emotionally resonant and includes one of the movie’s many memorable and escalating suggestions of destabilizing reality, when Justin looks one way down the road, then looks the other way, and experiences an almost imperceptible sense that the two directions are somehow disjunctive. Once the brothers arrive at the cult site, it becomes clear that Aaron feels a sense of belonging, a curiosity about what was left behind and what may still be regained. The dramatic arc that ensues, which sees Justin, as the elder brother, pushing for more control over Aaron in direct proportion to Aaron’s desire to go his own way, is elegant, and though not unexpected, is spun out of idiosyncratic and telling details. Ultimately, their dynamic is as much the cause as it is apparently the effect of their circumstances.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot, because even though it’s interesting and more ambitious than that of the duo’s previous films--Resolution (2012), to which this film connects in a sideways fashion, and Spring (2014)—its fragmentary nature doesn’t lend itself well to synopsis. Instead, what’s important is that the movie proceeds in patterns and symbols that build an excellent sense of disquiet and a lingering atmosphere of otherworldliness. Circles and mirrors abound, in nature, in the works of the cult, in the composition of shots themselves, even in Jimmy LaValle’s musical textures and phase-delayed samples from the song “House of the Rising Sun”. In a few specific instances the CGI is frayed around the edges--probably like the viewer’s nerves--and not all of the reality-interrogating sequences work equally well. But things do cohere, both emotionally and physically, in a mostly satisfying climax.
There are some bumps along the road, but considering that this film surely had a micro-budget, it’s an impressive achievement, refreshingly original, mentally stimulating and emotionally moving.
If you could live forever, infinitely repeating a specific and apparently pleasant section of time, or age normally without any hope of special distinction or purpose in your life, which would you choose? In a sense, this movie dramatically captures the conundrum at the heart of Nietzsche’s doctrine of “eternal recurrence,” which can be interpreted as providing a theoretical criterion for deciding what is worth living for and what is not. Nietzsche implores us to avoid pretense and any concessions to the notion of “just this once,” acting as though every instant of our lives will recur forever, and yet simultaneously existing purely in the moment. The Endless literalizes this idea, constructing a world in which isolated enclaves of such eternal recurrence are a matter of fact. By the movie’s end credits, Hal’s comment when the brothers arrive--“We’re always here”--takes on a whole new meaning.
A big part of the movie’s storyline revolves around Justin’s and Aaron’s attempts to resolve a multiplying series of mysteries, all of which have one underlying resolution. The resolution itself assumes the existence of a kind of Lovecraftian force (“The Colour out of Space” came to my mind, at least conceptually) pulling the strings from a physical realm beyond direct human sensory perception, but the entity’s details are not relevant. “You go find it,” Hal suggests to Justin when Justin presses him for information; this beautifully foreshadows Justin’s final line to his brother regarding the car’s gas tank: figure it out. If there’s any sense of wisdom imparted by the film’s close, it’s to continue to strive for meaning.
Notions of surrender and control are repeatedly investigated throughout. Is Justin stifling his younger brother? Is Hal the cult’s leader, or is there truly no leader, as he claims? If the entity controls you once, and you become its plaything forever, is it really still controlling you or is it all your choice? The Endless’ use of the time-loop is fascinating, and though this conceit is mostly deployed in science fiction (e.g. Source Code, Los Cronocrímenes, Edge of Tomorrow, About Time, Doctor Strange), it also harkens back to horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, In the Mouth of Madness or more recently Happy Death Day. (Perhaps my favorite example is Lost Highway’s narrative structure). The film shows us Hal’s attempts to solve an equation that will explain everything, a mathematical encapsulation of the closed timelike curve that has become his life. But we soon realize the equation will never be finished. And yet he’ll continue to work on it in every iteration of the cycle. Beckett would be proud.
All of this sounds serious and heady, and it is, but the film provides, if not levity, then at least some quirkiness and observational humor. There are the obvious “these-people-are-nuts” wink wink nudge nudge moments, but more successful is the humor that doubles as character development for Aaron, illustrating his naïveté about relationships and the way the world works. In the film’s last scene this will be transformed into a source of wonder and possibility. While Justin is also interesting and easy to empathize with, his behavior didn’t always ring true to me. After being expelled from the cult, he doesn’t seem to respond to ensuing revelations with the intensity of disbelief one might expect. Are we to infer that maybe he believed there was something profoundly mysterious going on all along? Maybe. But even so, his emotional response, for example, when he re-encounters Aaron after their forced separation felt inauthentically deadpan. There are also a few jarring narrative moments resulting from unlikely mechanics. The entity’s speed of pursuit—rushing towards the brothers one minute, then slowing down while they begin to roll the card forward the next, then speeding up again when the engine comes to life—seemed comically unbelievable, unless that to was supposed to mirror their efforts in some way. Then too, I didn’t think the attempt to show its point of view during that sequence was necessary, and it felt distracting.
E. R. Eddison, in his fantasy novel The Worm Ouroboros, wrote: “The harvest of this world is to the resolute, and he that is infirm of purpose is ground betwixt the upper and the nether millstone.” The Endless, which deals with characters tragically—or in some cases perhaps transcendentally—stranded in their own private tail-devouring worlds, has its own ideas about resoluteness and infirmity of purpose, and delightfully dwells on the question of which is truly the upper millstone and which the nether.