Picture it: Southern California, 2016. It’s late at night and I’m sitting in the editing bay (also known as a random building at camp) of The Endless, watching Resolution, the first film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. I’m here to shoot a scene as “Dale,” some character that has been referenced in their previous films. I don’t know much other than that. I’m taking the time to watch Resolution because I’ve never seen it before and the producer of both films, Dave Lawson, has sent me a copy. It’s my research. My research for my lineless cameo. Because, when Billy Ray Brewton commits to a role, he goes all-in. This was to be my Kane. But, instead of my dying words being ‘rosebud,’ they would have been something more like “craft beer.”
All of this to set the stage: I might be a tad biased with this review. True, “Dale” only gets about five seconds of screen time, but I also know the filmmakers…and their producer, their editor, production designer, and 75% of the folks who worked on the picture. But, I like to think I know how to take those facts out of the equation and render an unbiased judgment. I mean, after all, I didn’t care for their second feature, Spring. Didn’t care for it all. If I’m being brutally honest, I fell asleep a couple times and I wasn’t even drunk. So, I certainly don’t mind calling it like I see it, even when it means spitting in the faces of friends.
But The Endless is rad as hell. It’s quirky and awkward and oddly endearing and filled with the sort of scope and ambition that you rarely see in blockbusters, let alone indie films. This film contains the grandiosity that only the creativity forced from a low budget can allow. It shouldn’t look as good as it does, flow as well as it does, or pay off as well as it does. Sitting here right now, I can’t really put my finger on why it works, exactly, other than to just ramble off a few distinct possibilities. But, before I do that, let’s talk about what The Endless is about.
Benson and Moorhead (yeah, the filmmakers) play…you guessed it…Justin and Aaron, two formerly brainwashed members of a Southern California “alien death cult” who are living a less than ideal existence cleaning houses and doing whatever they can to survive. One day, a mysterious video arrives on their doorstep from the cult, igniting in Aaron a desire to return and see how their former friends are doing. A little awkward considering when they left the cult, they bad mouthed them and made them seem like psychotic loons. Nevertheless, the brothers venture back to Camp Arcadia to check in on the group, led by the seemingly wholesome and well-meaning Hal (Tate Ellington). While Aaron is excited to be back among friends, Justin is still weary of the whole thing and wants to leave as soon as possible.
Without spoiling too much, there are some discoveries made of some time loops, and that’s when The Endless starts wearing its sci-fi influences. Justin and Aaron get separated and have to find one another through the endless maze of loops, as Hal and the rest of the group prepare for a very special day known as the “ascension.” There are some tie-ins to previous Benson/Moorhead flicks, and the film goes from a muted character drama about two brothers at odds on how to survive in the world to a special effects-laden science fiction mystery film about a strange and omnipresent creature that governs anything and everything that resides within its world. Doesn’t make a lot of sense? It will. More than you expect. The Endless is sort of like the science fiction version of My Dinner with Andre…but with beer.
There are so many “no-nos” in The Endless for me – so many. Yet, somehow, they work. For starters, I’m generally down on filmmakers casting themselves in their films, and neither Benson nor Moorhead are really actors. But they don’t have to be. They are, essentially, just playing slightly modified versions of themselves and the chemistry they have off-screen translates so well on-screen that you don’t really stop to think about it. Both actors are asked to play two different sides of the same awkward self and each bring their own sense of what “awkward” means, with Moorhead’s venturing more towards “the ignorant” and Benson’s venturing more towards “the isolated.” It’s too bad The Endless won’t be nominated for an MTV Movie Award because we’ve got “Best On Screen Duo” contenders right here.
As the motley assortment of “cult” members, Tate Ellington is low-key and eerily commanding as Hal, the guy everyone calls their leader though he doesn’t seem to think so. Ellington really has to sell the idea of this group and he manages to do it amidst some pretty bizarre ideas that surface throughout. He never once betrays the idea that he is fully committed to what is happening even when it involves speaking in riddles that probably seem head-scratching on the page. He makes them work. I didn’t want to join the group, but I’d certainly hire Hal to do some audio book recordings. Lew Temple has a small role as a beer brewer who stands guard over a secret shack, Shane Brady turns in a whimsically mysterious performance as the group magician who likes to make baseballs disappear, and James Jordan basically steals the whole film for minutes at a time as a fast-talking, foul-mouthed nut job named Shitty Carl.
But what really makes this film stand apart are the technical accomplishments. I’m not used to seeing visual effects this polished in a film this meager in budget. The fire effects, particularly, were impressive as they eclipse most comparable effects in films with 50 times the budget. And, when we finally see a “version” of what the creature is, it’s really terrifying. It works that it’s not explained any more than it is so we can take the image we’re given and project a lot of different ideas onto it. That is what makes something scary. That is what makes something work. Working in conjunction with the generated visuals, the production design is spectacular, creating an odd little world that we’ve never quite seen before. They manage to take some statues and some totems and make us feel like we’ve stepped into some sort of alternate reality. That takes a lot of talented craftsmen working on the same page, which is rarer than you’d expect.
So, why does The Endless work? Apart from the 100 reasons I’ve just given you? I don’t know. I found myself shockingly moved at the end of this film, even though I can’t say I didn’t see where it was going. I respond to stories about brothers – always have. Most of what I write myself is about those relationships. So, it was nice to see a story about brothers told in such an honest and, sometimes, brutally blunt way. There’s a scene at the end outside the car, between Benson and Moorhead, that is so in-your-face with how seemingly cruel it is that you allow yourself to move past it because it’s absolutely 100% something one brother would say to another brother in a moment like that. I call those moments “honesty revelations.” These are the moments that certain characters can get away with because they’ve established a strong and honest enough relationship on-screen to know that we know the emotion underneath. That requires trust in your fellow actor and a hell of a lot of trust in an audience.
Picture it: Southern California, 2016. I’ve just finished shooting my brief little tidbit as a beer distribution guy where I, essentially, just lift kegs in and out of a vehicle and wear my sunglasses like a goddamn champion. Being on set gave me a keen look into how a film like The Endless comes about. Sure, it starts with an idea and the passion to make that idea a reality, but it also takes a village. And the strength and quality of your villagers determines what the finished product looks like. Luckily for The Endless, its village was enjoying a bumper crop. I wouldn’t even consider myself a villager; I was just some local, super sexy nomad who passed through town on his way to some sort of convention for super sexy nomads. And it’s this same super sexy nomad who thinks The Endless is a terrific science fiction flick, one of the most unique flicks out there right now, and the film you’re gonna kick yourself if you don’t see. Yeah, yeah, I know: I’m biased. But I also know what the hell I’m talking about. And, if I ever get stuck in a time loop of my own, I sure hope I have a copy of The Endless in my movie stack.