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Fantastic Fest 2017: The Endless Review

Rating:

8 out of 10

Cast:

Callie Hernandez as Anna
James Jordan as Carl
Tate Ellington as Hal
Lew Temple as Tim
Emily Montague as Jennifer Danube
Justin Benson as Justin Smith
Peter Cilella as Michael Danube
Aaron Moorhead as Aaron Smith
Vinny Curran as Chris Daniels
Ric Sarabia as Early 1900s Man
Kira Powell as Lizzy
David Lawson Jr. as Smiling Dave
Shane Brady as Shane Williams

Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

The Endless Review:

If you are familiar with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead‘s previous films, you’re likely aware that these two play with genre tropes in unconventional ways, but within a limited budget. Thus, the ideas that they seem to casually explore are rich with possibilities, while requiring the audience to do some of the lifting. The resulting work is intelligent and effective, and when they do deliver on the visuals, they mean so much more than your normal CGI spectacle. Resolution explores just what is real and what may be the result of a drug addict’s nightmares. Spring attempts to bring together two genres that ordinarily wouldn’t be seen on either side of the street together — horror and romance — but it turns out, under Benson and Moorhead, together they can make something beautiful and scary. Now, with The Endless, Benson and Moorhead continue to make the extraordinary personal, and trusts the audience to follow along. I love it when filmmakers do that.

It wouldn’t be fair to dive too deeply into The Endless‘s plot, especially since it’s a slow reveal, but it does help a bit going in that this is a story about two brothers who were once a part of a doomsday cult, but who managed to escape before the cult would “ascend,” aka kill themselves.  Now 10 years later, Justin (Justin Benson) and Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) are cleaning houses, eating ramen, and are generally unhappy with their lot in life. Aaron has no meaningful relationships except with his brother, and Justin isn’t much better. The relationship between the two is strained, but loving, and when they receive a videotape that suggests that the cult didn’t commit mass suicide after all, Aaron cajoles Justin to return, just for a day or two, to see how everyone is doing. Justin isn’t terribly keen on it, but return they do to Camp Arcadia, to find that while time has passed, it doesn’t appear that anyone has aged a day. There is something strange happening in the woods at night, and Justin and Aaron discover that the cult may not have been so crazy after all.

This is well explored territory, from Lovecraft to Bradbury to Stephen King, but Benson and Moorhead wisely keep it close to the brothers. We learn a bit about the relationship between the two, just in their conversations and the vernacular between each other, and we discover that neither of them is very well equipped to deal with what is happening, or, really, the world outside the camp. What is really happening is best discovered in the course of the film, but there isn’t one “information dump” exposition moment that explains everything, which causes the audience to store every bit of new information they can. This forces the audience to be much more invested in what is happening, and as we meet different characters and their stories, The Endless becomes not just a simple story of brothers, but a larger metaphor for storytelling itself. When we engage with a piece of art, at what point does the art change us, or do we change it? Much like The Cabin in the Woods, The Endless has us question our role in the relationship between the artist and its audience, and uses genre tropes to challenge our perception of these stories.

That sounds awfully complicated, but The Endless is worth a heightened level of engagement. It also makes it easier that there are many moments that are, for lack of better words, really cool.  While Benson and Moorhead are operating on limited means, that doesn’t make the ideas that they are examining any less deep or important. It would be easy to reveal what is really happening in the film, but that would be missing the point – The Endless wants us to engage with it, wants to entertain, and like Memento or The Cabin in the Woods or other genre examinations, is totally worth seeing twice. I hate to say that for a film that hasn’t been released yet, but The Endless rewards repeat viewing with a vengeance, and it also helps if you’ve seen Benson and Moorhead’s previous work. I will say that I wasn’t expecting to go where The Endless took me, but it’s the relationship between Justin and Aaron that keeps all the extraordinary occurrences on a human level. It’s funny, challenging, and never dull. This isn’t a movie that one should go in to crack open like a puzzle, but to immerse oneself in the experience.

I hope that Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead continue to explore genre in challenging, interesting ways. Eventually, someone’s going to give these two a substantial budget, and when they do, the amazing imagery will be backed up with smart and engaging ideas and emotions.  But The Endless has a lot — a lot — on its mind, and it is a genuine pleasure to play with this movie in my mind after the screen goes black. That’s what makes a movie truly worthwhile – we get to take it with us when we leave. The Endless is a journey worth taking, and like other genre films made on a budget, like Primer or Monsters, is so much more than the sum of its parts.  Science fiction and horror films work best on a personal level, and The Endless works well in that respect. For audiences willing to put their hearts and minds into it, The Endless will be a rewarding, engaging cinematic experience.