The unequivocally obtrusive chill that hangs over “The Endless” proves that directors Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead’s skills are not limited by low-budget filmmaking. They wield an alluring narrative with deft hands, crafting a gorgeously nuanced and unnerving thriller with their impressive screenplay and their own performances as the lead characters.
Benson and Moorhead play brothers Justin and Aaron. After escaping what the brothers describe as a UFO death cult 10 years prior, they lead lives of seemingly inescapable monotony and poverty as two house cleaners. Justin and Aaron receive a videotape early in the film from Camp Arcadia — where they used to live — in which a member of the cult describes the group’s happy, carefree life. Aaron, desperate for closure and comfort he cannot find in his new life with Justin, decides he wants to take quick a visit to Camp Arcadia. Justin agrees, but he hesitates — and for good reason. Aaron doesn’t exactly know what happened to him and Justin in the cult because he was much younger when they lived there. But through dialogue and old news clips, the audience gathers a blurry picture of the brothers’ life in the cult. They’re lives were driven by ignorance and blind devotion.
The immediate downsides to this film are the scenes of exposition at the start of the film. It’s disappointing to see a film so creative force these characters into irksome conversations for the sake of explanation. These moments are few, but they take an immediate toll on the film, bogging down the introductions to the characters, the setting and the story.
But once the first few minutes have expired, the film glistens. Its ability to remain intriguingly ambiguous is led by unsettling visual cues and strings of mysterious dialogue. The filmmakers give the audience what it wants without offering the whole picture, fashioning a world in which the lead characters know about as much as the audience. Their effort is present in Justin and Aaron’s trip to Camp Arcadia. Muted hints of something brewing around and within the community are present starting on their drive over. It’s through understated conversation, often played off as a joke, that the pieces to this puzzle are placed next to each other. It’s rewarding to collect these outwardly innocuous clues as the film progresses. It’s even more enthralling to create sense out of them when the film comes to a close.
Every single actor in this movie delivers with incomparable spirit. Benson and Moorhead’s characters shine — the two brothers’ stories are equally riveting and harrowing. Paired with Justin’s hapless desire to protect his younger brother is Aaron’s wish to be free of Justin’s often suffocating presence. And yes, the melodrama can squander some serious moments of the film, but the brothers are more than their drama. They’re lighthearted. They tease each other. They act like brothers who love and care about each other. This dynamic runs below the film’s surface and introduces itself in many scenes. It’s an easy, playful tone that allows the mind to remain sane as it twists and turns through this film. As stunning as the brothers are, the cult leader Hal (Tate Ellington), when paired with fellow prominent cult member Anna (Callie Hernandez), is terrifyingly elusive and mystifying. The nearly impenetrable shroud of secrecy that envelops the cult is strengthened and sustained by Ellington and Hernandez’s haunting performances.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” is the H.P. Lovecraft quote that opens the film — and nothing can better speak to the film’s inimitable ability to keep the audience enraptured in its spell. Fear permeates every scene. The audience members, mirroring the characters, sit uncomfortably in their dread. But it’s the fear of the unknown and the dread of the uncertain that is even more discomforting. The obscurity surrounding the camp is slowly, satisfyingly peeled away. But the apprehension and the foreboding are relentless, rendering “The Endless” a ceaselessly wonderful film that succeeds as viscerally as it does visually.