There have only been a few dozen times in film where a director’s debut feature signals such an incredible handle on the craft that you are certain from the end credits that you’ve just experienced the work of a true visionary. Even more unheard of is when it comes from two directors at the same time. However, with 2012’s Resolution, audiences were introduced to just that kind of tour de force filmmaking from the duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
Resolution is, at its core, a story of friendship and the lengths we go to preserve that bond. Their follow up feature Spring continues on a similar path by examining the heartbreak and perseverance of true love and now, with their brand new feature, The Endless, Benson and Moorhead (as they have affectionately become known) have continued this trajectory by examining the bonds of family and what that word really means all while doing what they do best: setting our teeth on edge and making us question our own realities through their own spin on Lovecraftian cosmic dread and horror. It also reinforces what was clear from Resolution five years earlier: this dynamic duo is playing chess with the audience, not checkers.
The Endless sees Benson and Moorhead returning in front of the camera as brothers Justin and Aaron (respectively) Smith, survivors of an alleged UFO death cult who now spend their days cleaning houses. Aaron receives a mysterious Hi-8 tape and when he and Justin play it, they discover a cryptic message about their former lives. Justin is content to leave the past where it is but after much cajoling from younger brother Aaron, the duo set out to discover the meaning behind the tape and return to their former lives one last time.
It’s at this point that the audience might have an odd sense of deja vu. Is it the filmmakers style? Is it the similar themes that are being explored? or is it that we’ve met these two brothers somewhere else before?
This signals what the writing/directing team does best throughout all of their work (even their insane segment in V/H/S/ Viral) and that’s building an incredible sense of unease and dread while also presenting us with a relatable themes such as friendship, love and family. The two conflicting forces go well together and the directors use them to their greatest effect here.
One of the things that worried me going into this film and having been a fan of their previous work, can they be just as effective in front of the camera as they have been on the page and behind the scenes and I’m happy to say that all of my worries were almost immediately dashed. Benson and Moorhead have worked so closely together for nearly a decade that it’s not hard to believe them as brothers. The two have a natural report and some of the films finest moments are when the two riff back and forth like siblings often do. It’s also clear that they’ve learned a lot from the wonderful talent pool of actors they’ve worked with. The two bring spectacular performances that, given how much they were responsible for on the film, would have sent any other directors spiraling out of control. It also helps that they are joined by a stellar cast including Tate Ellington (Shameless), Callie Hernandez (Graves) and stand outs James Jordan (Veronica Mars) as the scene stealing “shitty Carl” and relative newcomer Kira Powell who is absolutely haunting as Lizzy.
Just as much as the film is filled with stunning performances, it’s equally filled with set pieces that will make your pulse quicken and your hair stand on end. The duo continues to hone their skills at horror by not beating you over the head with endless gore or violence but by lulling you into false security before unleashing a barrage of dread and revulsion. What’s even more incredible, is that they are able to do this over and over again in the same film. There is a whimsical quality to this world. One where we question the nature of self and reality while also running for our lives from on unseen force. One where we are forced to face our past while wondering if the future is even guaranteed. For every practical, physical scare in the movie there is another that is existential and far more terrifying.
There is a moment that kicks off the last act of the film that realizes the sense of deja vu we were experiencing. To say anymore here would ruin the film’s best secrets, ones they have played very close to the chest during the making of the film but It’s a moment that left me breathless and made me realize just how in-depth Benson and Moorhead had become as filmmakers. They have come full circle in many ways with this film and they have grown their mythology in jaw-dropping ways but the biggest takeaway from the film is how they’ve grown as storytellers. Thoughtful, elegant, whimsical and terrifying, The Endless is emotionally mature while also being a masterclass in genre filmmaking.