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The Endless

[…] The question of what is the preferred reality is a less a metaphysical comment by the filmmakers than a social one. We find that the cult-commune life with its stylised weirdness, brewing of craft beer, donning of hipster-like beards, and token turntable appears to eclipse that of the “on-grid” treadmill that despairingly grinds the brothers (and us) down, preventing the mastery of one’s special talent.

[…] No social liberal, or even minimal state libertarian survives the teleology of Benson and Moorehead’s “It”: a thing, a darkness that sees what we see.

[…] It is not fear in the usual horror sense that Benson and Morehead attempt to induce, but is paradoxically the fear of fear alone.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless opens with two epigraphs. The first is from early American anti-humanist science fiction and horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) on the perennial fear of man, whose greatest fear is that of the unknown. While the second (author unknown) reflects on how feelings are rarely shared between siblings until their deathbed. Both appear unrelated in the first instance, but elegantly resonate together within the unfolding of the plot and film’s overall themes.

Two brothers, Justin and Aaron (the film’s writer and directors) are ten years on since leaving the home of their childhood, exposed by Justin as a UFO death cult performing routine castrations. Their relative experiences of this period provoke an ongoing tension, whereby Aaron, the youngest, has fond memories of a “real” life with real food within a comfortable ambience where everyone is free to do what they want. It is a memory more tantalising than the artificiality of a “deprogrammed” existence eating two-minute noodles forced upon him by his brother. A couple of well-rehearsed distinctions are identified here between the “real and non-real”: what is more real, or which reality do we prefer? And that of “freedom and constraint”: when are we are we truly free? The polarity of relative positions is teased out with unexpected complexity in the brothers’ relation and the truth of the cult when they return to visit.    

Back to the same woods as Benson’s and Moorehead’s 2012 acclaimed horror-thriller Resolution, where original characters, gun toting crack addict Chris (Vinnie Curran) and married Mike (Peter Cilella) appear in cameo inside one of the time-space loops that comprise the region. Justin and Aaron begin to understand that something more sinister controls the very finitude of the region’s trapped inhabitants who bump up against the border of shimmering bubbles that mirror-reflect themselves as seemingly extraordinary earthly phenomena.    

The question of what is the preferred reality is a less a metaphysical comment by the filmmakers than a social one. We find that the cult-commune life with its stylised weirdness, brewing of craft beer, donning of hipster-like beards, and token turntable appears to eclipse that of the “on-grid” treadmill that despairingly grinds the brothers (and us) down, preventing the mastery of one’s special talent. But then other bubble-loops emerge representing your likely-to-meet society marginals (crazies and druggies) enabling pivotal encounters where the truth of the region and deeper questions of the film come to light. Like the kum ba yah hippies venerating with religious cultish zeal an unknown greater force through game and ritual, these outlaws fail spectacularly to find their freedom from authority (whether transcendent or elected) in their going “off-grid”.

Hal (Tate Ellington) the perceived cult leader who rationally and ritualistically applies himself to the question of what “It” is, says: «Can you have power over yourself if you give up any amount of authority to something else?» No social liberal, or even minimal state libertarian survives the teleology of Benson and Moorehead’s It: a thing, a darkness that sees what we see. It documents on old media like polaroid, mini DV-cams, and disk drives, projecting the immediate present and futures of the inhabitants back to them. Dropped from the sky, buried as treasure, or sent as international post, these messages from above are images that manipulate their decisions and every mode of action. No one is free from this unbridled and deadly manufacturing of consent. The filmmakers create this celestial spectre of darkness that “Shitty Karl” (James Jordan) exclaims «uses space and time as its horse whip» and takes his dreams «so that his mind never leaves this place» as a metaphor for an authority one can never escape; It is like an ancient deity meddling directly in the life and death of the mortals who fear, play, worship, or shoot at it. But It is also contemporaneously the civil power tacitly contracted over us.

Absurdly trapped in an endless loop of life where death is both an option (suicide) or an inevitability (painful mutilation by It), Aaron is the one who corrupts this pattern in his finding the only way to be free. His freedom comes, in a striking Sartrean sense, with being able to choose and act against the will of his brother and overcome the fear that (in returning to Lovecraft’s words) perpetually devours humankind—a more than obvious weakness and sign of systematic idiocy in our current milieu. The exchange between the brothers in the penultimate “chase” scene allows Aaron to express to Justin his ability to choose and act. While the scene in its hyper-action is uncomfortably cliché and the least compelling moment of the film, we experience resolution without the need for explanation.

It is not fear in the usual horror sense that Benson and Morehead attempt to induce, but is paradoxically the fear of fear alone. The film from beginning to the end not only fascinates with its harmonious storyline, filmic quality and strong performances, it expertly creates in us an experience of unease. We are not scared of It, nor the probability of seeing death or mutilation, but the fear (only metaphorised by It) is our coming to understand the possibility that we are never really free. Freedom as an illusion and the true horror of reality. 

Text: Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie

First published: July 12, 2017

The Endless | Film | Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead | USA 2017 | 111’ | NIFFF 2017

International Critics Award and Imaging the Future Award (for Best Production Design) at NIFFF 2017

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