Review: The Endless

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Directors: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson

Stars: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Callie Hernandez

Sometimes an idea just won’t let you alone. For filmmaking duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, new doors were opened following the critical acclaim for their second feature Spring, and while the future will likely see them step through those doors, a notion from their first feature, Resolution, evidently required… well… resolution.

Or at the very least expansion.

There’s something admirably indulgent about building a cinematic universe out of an indie debut that, honestly, virtually nobody saw. And while going back and watching Resolution will enrich The Endless (and your life), Moorhead and Benson have wisely made it a non-essential proposition. You can view this film by itself and get everything you need. The other just makes it better.

The Endless is approached with the same zero-budget mindset as their debut, to the extent that the filmmakers themselves take the leading roles, expanding upon their one scene from the first movie. Named after themselves, they are brothers who have managed to extricate themselves from a cult out in the Southern Californian wilds. Younger sibling Aaron feels a pull to resume his former life, and the arrival of a mysterious video from their former home, Camp Arcadia, prompts a return trip.

Moorhead and Benson load early scenes at Camp Arcadia with circular imagery and the continuing insinuation of vortexes. Birds flying in spirals and unusual cloud patterns are the most pointed visual clues, but more persistent are everyday physical representations; bicycle wheels, archery targets, firepits… The genre element of the feature is the growing sensation that life at Camp Arcadia – and the surrounding area – exists in a perpetuating loop controlled by a sinister, puppeteering force. If they’re not careful, Aaron and Justin will become trapped forever.

The creators’ acting abilities vary, especially when they have only each other to bounce off of, and the opening of the film particularly evidences this weakness. Fortunately, they both seem to flex and broaden their range when engaging with others. Callie Hernandez who plays Anna is a welcome presence, recognisable from Adam Wingard’s often unfairly maligned Blair Witch. Is it perhaps an inside joke that she first appears here on a piece of found footage?

If there are deficiencies in the performances (and that isn’t all that often the case), they are more than made up for in the writing. The ethos of the filmmakers is to embed realistic characters that an audience can care for and become invested in, making any overt ‘genre’ elements the cherry on top. That was true of Resolution and Spring, and it certainly applies again. There’s an unvarnished quality to the characters they cultivate that sets their brand of cinema apart. However weird things get (and they get weird), their people feel knowable and therefore true. It makes these films more human.

In returning to the cult (do people from cults really call cults “cults” as much as these people do?), the characters of Aaron and Justin are both confronting a yearning for, ha, resolution; for completion and by extension unity. The film goes on to suggest that while a closed circuit can offer great comfort, the wider possibilities of letting your life’s course wander freely ultimately offers greater rewards.

Though the resources for this film are clearly miniscule, Moorhead and Benson are proving themselves wonderfully adept at making as much hay as they can. The directors make great use of the location, and a fondness for the natural world and how man coexists with it is fast becoming a thread in their work. See also their preference for keeping much of the horror/sci-fi elements of their stories outside of the frame. The Endless is more overt than Resolution, though really not by much. This lightness of touch matches the budget but doesn’t feel hemmed in by it. It’s a more cerebral choice that just happens to compliment their commendable economy.

As is often the case with low-budget filmmakers, Moorhead and Benson are starting to build a stable of loyal collaborators. Jimmy LaValle provided a delicately involving score to their last movie Spring, and he joins them again here. For The Endless he provides a more percussive backing; clicks and clacks that resemble nothing as much as the ticking of a clock. That’s nicely on theme as the concept of time becomes increasingly pertinent, and it helps underscore a dramatic countdown intrinsic to the final act.

The Endless also has an undercurrent of separation anxiety, as the prospect of leaving one another rises between Aaron and Justin. One wonders how telling this element is, whether it reflects the creators’ own concerns that their collaborative journey together might one day diverge? Their films have a tendency to work as meta experiences, so who knows? For now at least, I hope they stay the course together.

This is a movie brimming with ideas, and the enthusiasm for them both behind and in front of the camera is evident. For fans of Resolution there are so many little Easter eggs here and, as in early Kevin Smith films, the notion of these continuing and interweaving characters feels inclusive more than it does exclusive; a celebration of time spent and experiences shared. Wherever their careers take them, one anticipates that Moorhead and Benson will return to this universe again.

And who can blame them? The notion of a cinematic universe is such a curious modern phenomenon. This may be the smallest one presently in existence, but it’s also one of the most generous, and you’d do well to investigate it. For UK viewers, that’s been made all the easier, as Arrow Video have packaged together both The Endless and Resolution in a set brimming with extras and essays. For the curious, it’s a gift of a set worth adding to your collection.

Score:  4

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