The Endless first published by Sight & Sound, July 2018
Review: Bound as it is by its linear shape as a feature film, The Endless comes with a beginning and an ending, which it marks formally with introductory text and closing credits. Yet from the outset the film conjures its central idea of endlessness by plunging us in medias res. When we first meet its principal characters Justin (played by writer/director Justin Benson) and his brother Aaron (Benson’s non-fraternal co-director and DP Aaron Moorhead), they are stuck in a repetitive rut that has already lasted many years – a seemingly inescapable cycle of low-paid jobs and social disconnection in the city, as they struggle to meet their rent, or indeed any girls that they do not quickly frighten off. They have been playing this broken record ever since, a decade earlier, they had fled ‘Camp Arcadia’ – a rural commune that had taken them in as children after their mother’s death in a nearby car accident. Justin insists that Arcadia was a “UFO death cult” whose brainwashed members were castrated and suicide-bound – but the younger Aaron, himself sex-starved and lacking much will to live, remembers Arcadia only as a childhood idyll, and longs to go back to its fresh food, open air and sense of community.
Right at the beginning of The Endless, a mysterious videotape – not unlike the one from David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) or Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) – is delivered on the brothers’ doorstep, with an ambiguous recorded message from one of the Arcadians, Anna (Callie Hernandez), heralding a coming ‘ascension’ and a ’round trip’. One glimpse of the camp again, as well as of pretty Anna, and Aaron is hooked like one of the fish that he used to enjoy catching. Justin is more sceptical, but reluctantly agrees to take his brother back to see their one-time adoptive family – if indeed they are still alive – once more, before returning to their urban grind. Both quickly sense, though, that the collective’s hippieish membership may after all be right to believe that there really is something out there, watching over anyone who has strayed into this zone across the decades – something ineffable but palpable that is trying to bring about Justin and Aaron’s eternal return.
The Endless opens with a quote from H.P. Lovecraft concerning “fear of the unknown” – programmatic for a film involving an observant, aerial entity which is never seen, let alone understood, and whose essence various characters struggle to articulate without resorting to obscure metaphor or mystic mumbo jumbo. Yet the quotation is also, for anyone who has been following Benson and Moorhead’s shared career in transgressing genre boundaries and contemplating death, something of an in-joke. For while it became a cliché among critics to describe their previous collaboration, the tentacular romance Spring (2014), as ‘Lovecraftian’, the filmmakers themselves protested their complete ignorance of the author and his works at the time when they made that film. Now, it seems, they – and we – have come full circle, and Lovecraft, once denied as an influence, has been retroactively woven back into the texture of their films. I use that plural advisedly here, because not only do all their films share the theme of everyday experience brought into confrontation with mortality (and its monstrous opposite), but they also turn out to occupy the same universe, expressly unified by a common pool of characters recurring – whether in dialogue or in on-screen appearances – across their apparently different storylines. The Endless turns out to have a particularly close, albeit involuted, connection to Benson and Moorhead’s feature debut Resolution (2012). Much as the two films’ very titles serve as a sort of call and response, the earlier film’s characters – Mike (Peter Cilella), his wife Jennifer (Emily Montague), his friend Chris (Vinny Curran) and Chris’ memorably named acquaintance Shitty Carl (James Jordan) – all make a return here, still locked into their own endless cycles of dysfunction, even as the looping scenario of The Endless itself runs circles around their stories before crashing headlong into them. It is as though Benson and Moorhead’s disparate experiments in genre are in fact recycling motifs and characters to elaborate one complex, overarching campfire myth.
The Endless is, like Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) and Philip Gelatt‘s They Remain (2018), a cult film about a cult. It is also a story about an obsessive, otherworldly collector of recordable stories who is (like the all-seeing viewer) always just beyond the screen’s frame – and it is a film whose characters (two played by the actual writer and director) are in search of an author. “You want to know what it is that runs all this?”, Justin is asked by Arcadian Hal (Tate Ellington), “A higher power, a governing force, God, infinity solved?” Hal’s own quest to nail down the invisible, alien MacGuffin that overlooks the camp and its environs is conducted through the medium of a thorny mathematical formula, while fellow campers Tim (Lew Temple), Shane (Shane Brady) and Lizzy (Kira Powell) try to get at it through perfecting, respectively, the art of beer-brewing, illusionism and painting. Justin must do battle with his inner control freak, learning to cede the steering wheel if not to a supreme being, then at least to his brother. Meanwhile Aaron is on a nostalgic search for his barely remembered mother. ‘Oh, the boobs!’, he declares with boyish recognition, as he and Justin drive past two distinctively domed silos on their way back to Arcadia and, this side of the camp’s perimeter, to a roadside memorial for their mother. Aaron’s is a return to the nourishing bosom, making it only natural that he should be drawn to Anna, the woman who looked after him as a child and who now – impossibly – seems the same age as him. Naïve Aaron literally sleeps with Anna, without actually having sex with her, finding in her a comforting substitute for his deep, unresolved sense of maternal loss – and in a climactic scene that is all at once end and beginning, he will finally meet his mother/maker head-on in a time-confounding vehicular collision, becoming the driver of his own tragedy even as he leaves it forever in his trail.
What the brothers, increasingly confused and terrified, find on their twin quests is tales within tales and circles within circles, in a paradoxical landscape that takes spatio-temporal physics for a wild spin, and entraps everybody within the fixed if flexible parameters of their own narrative trajectory. In other words, The Endless is a science fiction and monster movie dealing with matters psychological, theological, metaphysical – and meta in other respects too, given that it reflects upon storytelling itself, in all its inexhaustible cyclicality. The finale may seem escapist, but Justin and Aaron only end up heading right back to where we first found them, having got away from Arcadia for the second, and therefore perhaps not the last, time, as they perform their own rather complicated figure-of-eight (∞) circuit through a life that keeps resetting itself. Benson and Moorhead use elements from their other films, and even their own physical identities, to construct a very personal Marienbad-like playbox. In it, they toy with big ideas about human imperfection, about tales whose characters’ agency comes heavily circumscribed, and about our awe and angst, defiance and despair in the face of otherness and implacable, inscrutable authority. The results, all at once witty and weird, ask us to gaze into the abyss, and then to gaze again, ad infinitum.
Synopsis: LA, the present. Trapped in a cycle of menial drudgery, Justin and his younger brother Aaron receive a peculiar video message from the rural community that raised them as children after their mother was killed in a car accident, and that they fled under a cloud a decade ago amid accusations of cult-like behaviour. Justin reluctantly joins Aaron on a trip back to ‘Camp Arcadia’, whose residents – a ragtag collective of beer brewers, former mental patients, magicians in training and frustrated mathematicians – seem not to have aged since the brothers last saw them. Aaron feels at home and hangs out with Anna (who had once looked after him as a child), but Justin has a series of odd experiences that lead him to believe that there is something watching and toying with the Arcadians. Informed by Hal that the ‘Ascension’ is coming, Justin tries to leave, but gets lost, and learns from angry loner Shitty Carl that everyone in the area is trapped in endless loops of varying duration by an observing, story-loving entity. Justin goes to the cabin of meth addict Chris to get a gun for Carl, and meets Mike there, who, trying unsuccessfully to end his and Chris’ loop, sets fire to the cabin. Justin finds Aaron (sent by Hal) and, disoriented, they return to the camp where the Arcadians’ loop is violently restarting. Reconciled, the brothers drive away from the destructive ‘higher power’, colliding head-on with their mother’s car on their way out.
© Anton Bitel