Fantastic Fest Review: THE ENDLESS Explores Our Mistakes Through Time
“What year is it?” will go down as the greatest line reading of ’17 – a moment of terrified befuddlement encapsulated by an emotionally overwhelmed Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), who sits on the curb in front of what he thought was Laura Palmer’s home. Existence somehow shifted on the Twin Peaks FBI agent and his eternal innocent quarry. Suddenly, David Lynch was injecting grandiose notions regarding alternate timelines, and how we may be doomed to forever repeat past mistakes with the final Episode of he and Mark Frost's 18-hour opus. It’s The Dark Tower quagmire, repurposed for fans of surrealist cinema, all packaged inside a Showtime series revival that refused to conform to anyone’s expectations.
The same can be said of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who’ve continuously defied specific genre standards. Yet this declassification doesn’t necessarily feel willful, as much as it’s an organic result of the types of stories they want to tell. Resolution (’12) saw two men head up into an isolated cabin in the woods, only to be confronted by UFO cult members, and an ancient evil that may be manipulating their every move. Spring (’14) finds a young man falling in love with a monster while taking a trip overseas in order to escape the memories of his deceased mother. Neither of their previous narrative features follow a predictable path, seemingly more interested in the emotional byproducts of their trappings, rather than simple linear results. Both end on beguilingly ambivalent notes, allowing audience members to fill in epilogues as they see fit.
The Endless is a continuation of this anti-genre trend – a picture that begins with a Lovecraft quote, but is more fascinated by Lovecraft’s theories regarding the unknowability of life’s mysteries, rather than the monsters that hide in the dark shadows of the New England horror godfather’s impenetrable shadows. It’s a movie that can again be boiled down to a simplistic logline – two brothers (Benson & Moorhead, playing characters named Justin and Aaron) return to the cult they fled from years earlier, only to discover its members may not be insane – is again used as a jumping off point to explore the human errors that led these boys to betray their previous beliefs (and maybe each other). To wit, Benson & Moorhead are seemingly more motivated by ideas than tropes, letting their philosophical interrogations do the heavy lifting, both in terms of tone and storytelling. Much like Agent Cooper or Roland Deschain, Justin and Aaron’s quandaries become eternal; a test unbeknownst to its takers, offering many moments for self-examination.
Before continuing any further, it should be noted that The Endless is going to be wrongfully labeled a “sequel” to Resolution by many, when it really only takes place within the same universe as Benson & Moorhead’s freshman feature. Our main creatives are reprising roles from that movie and bumping into its tragic protagonists (Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran), who are still stuck in that dilapidated shack; the addict (Curran) chained to a rail while his best bro (Cilella) attempts to get them out of this never-ending detox. Seeing these two is a delight for hardcore fans of Benson & Moorhead’s filmography (especially Curran, who is just as hilarious as he was in Resolution), but audience members unfamiliar with that little seen horror exercise don’t need to view it in order to understand The Endless. The expansion is more an indulgent bit of indie universe building, and a way for the duo to pay tribute to a picture they’re obviously very proud of that also helped pave the way for Spring and The Endless to even exist. That said, one could also meta-textually tie this in-joke to the movie’s themes about time and the ways in which we get trapped in each moment. Perhaps this is Benson & Moorhead slyly acknowledging that they’ve never left their own lo-fi galaxy, and are comfortable continuing to build these microbudget microcosms as long as it allows them to dramatically explore the idiosyncratic throughlines that fascinate them.
Where Justin Benson is credited as the sole writer on their three features, Aaron Moorhead is their visual stylist (as the cinematographer), and The Endless is another stunning example of how to stretch one dollar into ten stylistically. Coated in a dusty brown, the cult's camp is captured in a beautiful collection of daytime tableaus, sometimes slowing down to observe the happiness of this community as Benson jogs through it in slow motion. Benson & Moorhead make absolutely beautiful films, and The Endless is no exception to that rule. But the way digital effects are inserted into these cinematic paintings creates a subtly unnerving effect, playing with the viewer's perception of each frame. A shadowy, omnipotent beast lurks on the horizon (or are those simply some dark clouds?). Gigantic trees inexplicably tumble in the forest (or are they just being logged for firewood?). Birds swirl, as if controlled by some sort of psychic event (or is that just their natural flight pattern?). A gelatinous, transluscent monster glides beneath a row boat (or is that just a shadow created by the sun?). Moreso than their other movies, The Endless is a work of remarkably textured cinematography, scaring us with ostensibly ordinary images that house unknown evils in their periphery.
To reveal anything else would be doing the viewer a disservice, as part of the fun of watching The Endless is its unpredictability. These supernatural dramas Benson & Moorhead are crafting stand on their own two legs, completely fascinated with their concepts and emotional cores. At times, this can lead to some slight narrative inertia (as the boys' central journey can sometimes feel lethargic), but they are far from improperly paced. The story beats are spaced far enough apart so that we can get to know both the brothers and these overly polite campers who may or may not be awaiting a great human cleansing known as “The Ascension”. But in the end, its not aliens, monsters, or even a rope leading off into an unfathomable blackness (the movie’s most striking image) that takes over our imaginations. It’s these two guys, struggling to understand each other and existence while refusing to be prisoners of time or circumstance. In a way, The Endless becomes the perfect metaphor for Benson & Moorhead’s filmography thus far – a self-contained loop, in which comprehending one’s own failings can be far more terrifying than any standard nightmare imagery.