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The Endless

The world is still crazy about Avengers: Infinity War. The movie continues to break box office records, everybody’s talking about it — in hushed tones, just in case there’s still someone nearby who hasn’t seen it yet — and multiplexes are otherwise loaded with instantly forgettable movies that nobody cares about.

Maybe you’re already fatigued with the Marvel hype and you’re looking for a movie to get away from all that. If you are, then have I got a weird low-budget bit of counter-programming for you.

The Endless was made by the up-and-coming indie filmmaking duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. As with many weird indie films of this size and scope, the phrase “made by” here means that in addition to writing, directing, producing, shooting, and editing the movie, they also star as characters named after themselves. This is a movie with no big names attached in any capacity, no support from any of the major media conglomerates, a budget that’s probably smaller than your bank account, and no crowdfunding campaign to raise funds or awareness. Yet the film screened at multiple film festivals to near-unanimous critical praise.

So what exactly are we in for here? Well, it starts with a UFO death cult and gets progressively weirder from there.

Jason and Aaron (the characters, not the filmmakers) are a pair of brothers who escaped from a cult about ten years prior.  The two run their own independent cleaning service, and it’s been going so poorly that they subsist almost entirely on instant ramen and live in an apartment that barely deserves to be called as such. Things get worse when Aaron receives a VHS tape with an enigmatic message from their old commune. Suddenly, Aaron finds himself nostalgic for the days when he shared living space with a loving community and felt a sense of purpose that he doesn’t have anymore. Oh, and he used to eat actual food instead of the instant junk that’s all he can afford anymore.

Against his better judgment, Justin agrees to go with his brother and pay a visit to the old cult to try and find some closure. And nobody there has aged a day in ten years. There are other signs, and a bunch of other weird happenings to suggest that there really is something weird going on here, and maybe there’s more going on with this cult than meets the eye.

Right off the bat, this is far better on a technical level than most other projects with a shoestring budget. Yes, the handheld camerawork is obnoxious in places, but the clever editing and the potent atmosphere make up for that. The visual effects are wisely used, and the score is… well, it’s obtrusive in a few places, I admit, but it’s nicely unsettling on the whole.

Then we have the cast. Justin is quite thoroughly established as the resident skeptic while Aaron is the relapsed convert, and both characters play these roles with a predictability that verges on boredom. The upside is that when something happens to shake either character out of denial, or when their love for each other pushes them to new and unexpected action, the moment lands way more effectively.

In the supporting cast, we have Callie Hernandez as the potential love interest, Tate Ellington as the de facto cult leader, and James Jordan as the oddball who turns out to know way more than he’s letting on. Also of interest are Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran, here reprising their roles from Benson and Moorhead’s debut feature, Resolution.

(Side note: The good news is that if you haven’t seen the previous film, this one won’t make any less sense. The bad news is that if you have, it won’t make any more sense.)

The cast is solid throughout. Some of the characters make a bigger impression than others, but there really isn’t a weak link here. What’s especially notable is how the characters are all very friendly, but there’s something about them that’s just a little bit off in some indescribable and unsettling way. It’s the same basic principle as Get Out, but nowhere near as overt.

This brings us to the biggest strength of the movie: The timing. And I’m not just talking about the timing of the jokes and scares, though both of those are wonderfully on point. I’m talking more about the gradual buildup of questions and answers. The slow reveal of what’s going on is expertly paced, building on what’s come before while always leaving just enough to keep us hooked. Yes, there is a lengthy exposition dump near the start of the third act, but even that is presented in an entertaining and compelling way. Granted, this approach doesn’t work especially well for a horror film, but it works beautifully well for a high-concept mind-bending suspense thriller.

While I’m loathe to say too much about the central conceit (let’s just say the movie has that title for a reason), I will say that it adds a lot of new dimensions to the pivotal choice of whether to leave or stay at the commune. Would it be better to be surrounded by a loving and supportive community in nature or alone and starving in the city? They can have the freedom to explore the whole wide world, or they can be stuck in this commune forever. Either way, these characters are faced with the permanent choice of how they’re going to live day by identical day from here to eternity. The dilemma works far better than I could describe here, partly because I don’t want to get into spoilers and partly because I’m not the filmmakers involved.

I only have one significant problem, but it’s a massive one that affects the whole movie: The nature of our antagonist. All the weird happenings in this movie could have been caused by some impartial supernatural phenomenon and that would have fixed a lot of problems. Instead, there is very clearly some kind of all-seeing deity controlling everything and communicating with the other characters through archaic technology.

We never learn exactly what this eldritch terror is or how it operates, and I can respect that. But we never learn why this deity acts as it does, and I can’t abide that. Yes, we learn what it means for the human characters if they stay or go, but we don’t get the single faintest clue what it means to the entity running all of this. The motivation of our antagonist is completely opaque, and that’s a huge fucking problem when it’s the antagonist driving the whole plot.

All things considered, The Endless works far better as a mind-bending suspense thriller than a horror film. The movie is deliberately opaque, and the central conceit is convoluted by design, but the process of learning more about it all is great fun. The central themes are compelling, the filmmaking is inventive, the cast is uniformly solid, and the relationship between our two main characters is delightful to watch.

If you’re lucky enough to find this one, definitely give it a try. Just don’t go in expecting a straight horror film or anything even remotely ordinary.

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