In most cult movies, the protagonist is supposed to never look back after escaping the uniforms, doublespeak, and specter of mass suicide. Life on the outside is a sweet freedom, family welcoming them back into society and the endless opportunities that unspool out in front of them.
But this is not so so for Justin and Aaron (co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead), two brothers who fled “a crazy UFO death cult” 10 years ago and don’t have much to show for it in the meantime. They eke out a living cleaning empty apartments for incoming tenants, munching on ramen in vacated kitchens they’ll never actually inhabit. Weekly reprogramming sessions also aren’t doing much for Aaron, the younger of the two, whose indistinct memories of the cult are definitely rose-tinted. Justin, his confidante and protector, is running out of arguments that he made the right decision for them.
Like The Ring, it’s a videotape with disturbing circular imagery that reels them back in: The cult sends an old analog VHS tape in which one of its members, Anna (La La Land’s Callie Hernandez), shares a bizarre message about how happy they are as they prepare for “the Ascension.” A mix of worry about the people who were their former family, morbid curiosity, and Aaron’s need for closure propels the two brothers to drive out into the desert to see how the cult has fared since they left it behind.
From the moment that Aaron and Justin arrive at Camp Arcadia, there is a curious feeling of claustrophobia. The commune—overly pleasant but not crazy, with cabins in place of UFOs—sprawls over the land, yet everywhere you look there are physical and figurative borders. Members never stray far from one another, as if they’re afraid to drop the buddy system. Except for one member, who stalks the borders of the campground with a fixed scowl, over and over. Strange Post-it notes adorn the doors of every cabin; a bizarre equation with no solution adorns the wall of supposed leader Hal’s (Tate Ellington) bunk.
One of the buildings bears a massive padlock. Instead of Samara’s well, or anything descending into the earth, the aforementioned circles are demarcated by odd lava protrusions on the ground, flocks of birds flying in unnatural arrangements, and the ever-present rock circle around the campfire.
As Aaron is surprised to find that he fits in quite well with Camp Arcadia’s idealized self-sufficiency, Justin grates against every detail, from an unspoken rivalry with the beatific Hal to a bizarre icebreaker game that chillingly defies the laws of physics. And then Polaroids begin falling from the sky.
A male Martha Marcy May Marlene, this is not. To give any more detail into the strange happenings at Camp Arcadia would ruin the movie’s surprises, but suffice to say that the cult is perhaps justified in their weird behavior in devotion to a higher purpose. If you’ve seen Resolution, Benson and Moorhead’s debut short film (that premiered at Tribeca in 2012), you’ll start to recognize where all this is leading. But just as that was a tight, constrained tale about two men stuck in a cabin, The Endless builds on that—it’s like a larger concentric circle around Resolution, in which the setting and especially the stakes are expanded.
Often the most ominous figure in cult stories is the charismatic leader with his inexplicable power over his followers. But Hal, for all his zen-like grins that belie a sharp focus on every moving part of the commune, is not the leader—he’s just the one who talks the most. In many ways, that’s even scarier. Without a central presence on which to focus, the cult’s rituals are even more inexplicable, lending credence to the H.P. Lovecraft quote that serves as the film’s epigraph: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Other movies will throw together the leads as brothers for convenience, for quick, manufactured pathos. Here, you don’t for a second doubt the depth of Justin and Aaron’s bond, fractured as it is. Benson’s screenplay cuts the slow-creeping horror with tension-breaking laugh-out-loud dialogue (“that’s super culty”), which reminds you how much these two have to lose if they don’t make a second escape.
But therein lies the existential dilemma at the heart of The Endless: Is it better to live out the same shitty day, Groundhog Day-style, on the outside—or enter into the proverbial circle and take your chances with a different sort of endless cycle? Debating these eternal human issues in the grip of ancient horrors makes for a fascinating ride with compelling characters—and, even more, compelling filmmakers whose next work will hopefully prove just as engrossing.
The Endless premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was recently acquired by Well Go USA Entertainment and will have a traditional theatrical release.