The Endless, the third outing from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, opens with two quotes: one we’re all very familiar with from H.P. Lovecraft about our fear of the unknown, and an unattributed quote about the likelihood of siblings to only reveal their true selves to one another on their deathbeds.
It’s a perfect introduction to a film that is nearly impossible to summarize. The Endless is about a hundred different things: a brilliant, nuanced discussion of the mistakes we make and the lessons we learn if given enough chances, the inner secrets of ourselves that we can never trust with those around us, the things we’ll sacrifice for a bitter slice of immortality. But at its heart, The Endless is really about two brothers who fear the unknown, and who remain unknown to each other.
The filmmakers star as Justin and Aaron Smith, brothers who escaped from a cult years before and now live a grey existence on the government’s dime. They’re housekeepers who mainly subsist on instant ramen and who drive a shitty car that barely works. Aaron is the naïve younger brother with hazy golden memories of his time at Camp Arcadia. He remembers the fishing trips and the good food - but cynical big brother Justin assures him his memories are flawed. This is your run-of-the-mill UFO death cult, he says, with mass suicides and castrations. Aaron is lucky Justin broke them both out.
But after receiving a video message from Arcadia, Aaron wants to return for a night or two. He just wants some closure, and Justin grudgingly agrees. After they’re welcomed back with open arms, it seems to us that both Justin and Aaron are right: the residents of Camp Arcadia are kind and their existence seems wholesome, but there is something amiss here, moments of darkness, slight twists to materiality that leave the brothers - and the audience - ever uncertain of what’s real.
In some ways, The Endless resembles nothing so much as a particularly poetic Twilight Zone episode. Camp Arcadia is beset by time loops and dimensional warps. The moon doubles, then triples. A prodigious underwater shadow menaces below the brothers' fishing boat. The air crinkles and fades, and the cult members (or campers?) explain it all away with physics: is it a collision of electrically charged particles like the Northern Lights, an atmospheric mirroring effect?
These cosmic phenomena allow for some of the most visually interesting work Benson and Moorhead have ever done. The Endless is breathtaking, a dusty golden landscape turned celestial with each watercolor ripple. All of this makes a mesmerizing backdrop to the bizarre labyrinth in which Aaron and Justin find themselves. As they explore the camp and its surrounding areas, they encounter a series of odd vignettes, various residents of Camp Arcadia wrestling with their own unsolvable problems (including Vinny Curran and Peter Cilella returning from Benson and Moorhead’s first film Resolution, which shares this strange universe with The Endless). It’s weird, remarkably weird, and it goes a thousand places you’ll never expect, but with every turn of the plot and twist of the scenery, The Endless remains utterly compelling. We’re never precisely sure what this movie is, but we want all of it.
The more they fight and fear the unknown, the more it becomes clear that the real battle here is between brothers who have never understood each other. Justin has felt protective of Aaron since their mother died, and he can’t understand why his little brother would prefer a life of cloistered control to the free - if somewhat depressing - existence he’s built for them. Aaron feels smothered and belittled by Justin, less free than he did when he was a kid fishing in a happy home that just so happened to be a cult.
The two directors are not siblings in real life, of course, but there’s a brotherliness that comes with working together as closely as Benson and Moorhead have done for the past several years. And we see it in their relationship onscreen, a closeness that signals both love and constant, never-ending aggravation. As Justin and Aaron drive to Camp Arcadia, their road trip feels like every sibling road trip that has ever existed as long as we've had siblings and roads. They fight over who will drive, who left the interior light on and what music to listen to - but at the same time they drive past a pair of pointy-topped power plant domes and grinningly refer to them as "boobs" in the rote humor of long practice. (An aside: my big sister and I have referred to similar domes in East Texas as boobs my entire life, in just such a way, every single time we drive past them. Oh, the perfect authenticity of this small, silly detail.)
Benson and Moorhead have put everything of themselves into this movie. In addition to directing it and starring in it using their own names, Benson wrote the screenplay and edited the film, and Moorhead was the cinematographer. The Endless is the purest vision we could ever hope to see from two filmmakers who are as comfortable examining the mysteries of the universe as they are the intimacies of our own hearts.