In The Endless, brothers Justin and Aaron (played respectively by directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) have no friends or potential romantic partners, and their jobs pay so little that they can barely afford ramen noodles. Maybe they shouldn’t have escaped from that “UFO death cult” in the desert that took them in all those years ago after their mother died in a car crash. So thinks Aaron, whose older brother led their escape when Aaron was just a teen, thus explaining why his memories are fuzzier and fonder. For one, he has no recollection that, as Justin tells him, all of the cult’s adult male members were castrated—just that the camp always had fresh vegetables at supper. When a battered camcorder cassette arrives in their mail, seeming to show the old cult-family saying goodbye, the brothers return for a visit, for closure. Turns out things are weirder there than even Justin remembers.
Like Ti West’s Jonestown-inspired The Sacrament, Benson and Moorhead’s film first shows the appeal of commune living—everyone eats healthy, follows their blisses, and drinks copious craft beer (an on-site brewery bankrolls the camp’s operation)—so that it’s all the more unnerving when the amiable façade falls away. Throughout The Endless, there are plenty of hints that something’s up, and the filmmakers excel at crafting an unsettling atmosphere through images of multiple moons in the sky, the daylight that flickers to full-on night and back again, the flocks of birds flying in ring formations, and the fired bullets that are flattened as if by a force field of invisible brick.
Benson, who wrote the film’s screenplay, doesn’t exactly excel at crafting compelling dialogue: Justin, trying to summon the sickest burn at the climax of his fight with camp figurehead Hal (Tate Ellington), merely musters, “You’re a fucking cult leader!” And much of the film’s performances don’t rise above the serviceable. But it’s not hard to overlook such deficiencies, given Benson and Moorhead’s intriguing world-building. The Endless is science fiction, gussied up in the guise of quotidian drama, enhancing the eeriness of the story’s non-natural phenomena. In the film, there may be such a thing as a god, who reveals what it sees from on high to those below through antique visual means, such as Polaroids or video cassettes. And that deity also seems to govern small geographical spheres operating on fixed time loops, creating spatial and temporal distortions all over the desert between which Aaron and Justin are able to travel, because they haven’t been fixed in one yet. (Fans of Benson and Moorhead’s Resolution will appreciate the brief, unhappy reappearance of its main characters when Justin stumbles into their loop.)
The Endless recalls Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel (and the Emidio Greco’s 1974 film adaptation starring Anna Karina), in which a scientist records what’s meant to be a perfect weekend on a remote island, then projects it three-dimensionally on an infinite loop atop the locations where it unfolded—a vision of what cinema (and home movies) could be if untethered from the screen. But in The Endless, the characters aren’t recordings, and they’re at least partially conscious of their imprisonment, consigned to live out the same events in perpetuity. As such, knotty, unlikely philosophical issues are raised. For example, is a dead-end life of temporal freedom preferable to a time-prison full of friends, creative activities, and good eating? But Benson and Moorhead veer away from the deeper, even meta-cinematic, implications of their plotting to settle into Spielbergian Hollywood clichés about how divided families come back together.