Crows flying in circles; weird volcanic structures on the ground. Portents falling from the sky; a UFO-obsessed cult camped out in the middle of nowhere, brewing craft beer. What can it all mean? The Endless doesn’t rush to give us answers, but its two central characters are charismatic guides leading us on a twisting path into the unknown.
The Endless begins in the real world at its most starkly mundane. Brothers Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) and Justin (Justin Benson) live in a grey-looking rented house, working low-paid jobs that don’t even cover their bills. We gradually learn that, years earlier, both brothers used to be members of a cult that lived simply and harmoniously out in the countryside; Justin, the sceptical older brother, became suspicious of the cult’s beliefs, and helped his younger brother escape.
But the poverty and gloom of the real world – not to mention a video tape sent by an attractive-looking member of the commune – keeps pulling Justin back in. The cult members live off the land; they don’t have to worry about paying rent; they earn money by making organic beer. What’s not to like? Against his better judgement, Justin agrees to join Aaron on a trip back to the commune – ostensibly, to lay the past to rest.
Benson and Moorhead make for a great pair of leads, and they’re low-budget auteurs behind the camera, too. Benson wrote the screenplay; both direct and produce, while Moorhead’s the cinematographer. Together, they craft a slow-burning yet hugely absorbing movie that doesn’t quite fit into your typical genre box: it has the dusty sense of menace you might recognise from the first 30 minutes of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chains-Saw Massacre, though it doesn’t sink into that film’s final act delirium.
There are flashes of science fiction, but it doesn’t obsess over the details of its science, necessarily. The closest analogy is HP Lovecraft’s weird fiction, which also fused horror, sci-fi and suspense – The Endless does all that, while at the same time remaining focused on its central characters and the dynamic between them: one older, protective and jaded, the other guileless and fascinated by the possibility of the cult’s alternative lifestyle.
Indeed, Justin and Aaron make for such pleasant company that it’s easy to overlook how talky The Endless is for a genre movie. It also helps that the characters they meet along the way are enjoyably off-beat, too; there’s Tate Ellington as the cult leader, who specialises in long sums and obtuse team-building exercises, and James Jordan as the brilliantly-named Shitty Carl, a guy who lives in a barn and shouts a lot.
These and others are all great, and it’s pleasing to see how Benson and Moorhead let their intrigue unfold without heading in directions you’d usually expect. The Endless’ premise initially suggests that it belongs in the same wheelhouse as Ti West’s The Sacrament, another genre film about a cult that draws on the dark memories of the Jonestown Massacre. But where that film took its characters down a predictable path – one that cut its more difficult questions off at the knees – The Endless remains pleasingly ambiguous. Is there really something otherworldly and ancient in this forgotten corner of America? Who’s to say whether the individual bubbles the cult members live in is all that different from the bubbles of work and consumption we cycle through in our towns and cities?
The Endless gradually answers some of those questions in unexpected ways, and the imagery it springs on us is frequently as off-kilter as its characters. We’d argue that, if you liked Donnie Darko, then you’ll like this movie’s mix of drama, subtle black comedy and sci-fi.
In their previous film, Spring (2014), Benson and Moorhead showed a particular talent for creating impressive shots on a low budget. The Endless lacks the body horror and romantic atmosphere of that film, but it has a similar level of invention – not to mention a knack for defying genre expectations. (The Endless also references back to the director duo’s first feature, Resolution, though you won’t have to have seen that movie to appreciate this one.)
Simply yet ingeniously told, The Endless is one of those festival movies that deserves to find a wider audience. Although the storytelling isn’t without fault – the specific beliefs held by the cult never feel adequately explored beyond their attachment to UFOs – but The Endless is nevertheless imaginative, absorbing and hugely likeable. Cult status will surely follow.
The Endless is out in UK cinemas on the 29th June.