‘The Endless’ Feels Like Anything But

by Warren Cantrell on April 24, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]
A psychological thriller with doomsday cult roots and a healthy dose of sci-fi sensibilities, The Endless boasts an original story with heart, even if the whole thing comes wrapped inside a Mystery Box. The story of two brothers who return to the cult they escaped from years earlier for closure and reassurance, The Endless eschews the trappings of its genre to elevate its leads to more than just fodder for the narrative. And while the film doesn’t manage to keep the effort humming along at a consistent speed, it does a decent enough job with a complicated premise to justify its existence (and then some).

Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead play brothers Justin and Aaron, who are scraping by on Top Ramen, minimum wage, and government assistance when the movie opens. Through their conversations with therapists and each other, the audience learns that Justin spearheaded an escape for the pair from a UFO doomsday cult a number of years ago. And while Justin seems well-adjusted and content with the life he’s carved out for the pair, Aaron is restless. For his part, Justin recalls all the cult-y shit that prompted their escape, yet Aaron seems to only remember the pleasant bits rooted in community and homegrown organic produce.

When the pair receive a video recording of one of their old cult acquaintances speaking to the camera about their impending “ascension,” Aaron convinces his brother to drive them back to the old compound for some closure. Although Justin thinks it is a bad idea, it is clear that this urge has been building within his brother for some time, and it is a trip that Aaron seems determined to make with or without his sibling. It’s not enough for Justin to explain all the reasons why they left the cult, it would seem: Aaron is intent on going back to see for himself if everything was as crazy as his brother claims.

Once they arrive at the compound, the amiable and generous disposition of the cult members seems to justify Aaron’s perspective. Far from the castrated, brainwashed drones that Justin speaks about in therapy, the cult is inviting and not at all angry about the pair’s departure years before. More of a hippie commune than a Jonestown-like group, the cult brews their own beer, grows their own food, and leans into the “all you need is love” ethos. Yet something is indeed off about the place, what with the cult’s devotion to an unseen alien presence and the flexible nature of physics and gravity on the grounds.

As The Endless moves into its second act, the film introduces several mysteries about the cult and their compound that can’t be written off to simple psychological suggestion or sleight of hand. Things occur that don’t jive with the basic tenants of science, and force Justin to reevaluate what he thinks he knows about the cult he and his brother escaped from all those years ago. They both see things that can’t be reconciled with any reasonable explanation, and there’s the lingering fear, however small, that it’s them and not the cultists that are crazy.

Yet this second act is also where The Endless falters a bit, as there’s enough mystery to set this story up, and even resolve it, yet not nearly enough to keep the script’s engine fueled through the discovery phase. As Justin and Aaron grope around in the darkness to get at the root of what’s going on with the cult, so too does the audience, and it is about 40 minutes of oddly paced “action” that adds little to the overall effort. Were this a TV series, all of this might amount to world building (the red flower everyone is smoking is a good example of this), yet for a 110-minute Mystery Box movie, these bits feel more like padding than structure.

Benson and Moorhead have a lot on their plates with The Endless, starring, directing, and (in Benson’s case) writing this thing. Their performances as leads, while adequate, do seem to suffer as a result, though the natural chemistry of these two artistic partners does shine through in spots. When they’re playing casually off each other, especially in the humorous moments the script affords, they come off better than when they stretch themselves for dramatic effect.

The pair have crafted a unique, interesting mystery, though, and stock their supporting roles with quality actors that sink their teeth into the material. Newcomer Callie Hernandez is spectacular as the unassuming and inviting Anna, who the brothers marvel at for not having aged a day in twenty-plus years. Tate Ellington also turns in a great performance as Hal, the de facto cult leader who seems to have answers, along with a reluctance to share them.

As The Endless moves into its final act, and the reveal of the central mystery of the cult unfolds, the movie finds its legs and justifies its pedigree. The truth behind the cult (which is way too interesting and well-crafted to ruin here) is worth the journey, not just for what it is, but for the character development it fosters in its leads. Indeed, this is more than just a clever romp through supernatural whodunit-ville, this is a story of two brothers and the development of their relationship.

Opening this Friday at the Screenland at Tapcade, The Endless is an interesting and well-conceived psychological thriller with heart. The DIY approach to filmmaking might have hobbled Benson and Moorhead in the acting and pacing department at times, yet the unique nature of the story they want to tell paired with the earnest character work that plays out makes it worth a watch.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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