The Endless

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Endless
"The proportion of films opening with HP Lovecraft quotes that manage to live up to the visionary writer's work verges on the infinitesimal, but The Endless is one of the special ones."

We begin at the beginning, but there's a sense that we've been here before. Justin (Justin Benson) and younger brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) are having an argument. Their life is shit, says Aaron. Every day is the same. They can't get decent jobs, they can't make friends, they can't meet girls. Justin, who has been taking care of him for years and and is clearly putting in the lion's share of the work to sustain them, is frustrated by this but understands where it's coming from, and that he's responsible. After all, he was the one who pulled his brother out of a cult and got them both into readjustment therapy. Now Aaron wants to return to the cult, just for a short visit, just to say goodbye properly. And the receipt of a disturbing video makes Justin feel the need to go back too.

The proportion of films opening with HP Lovecraft quotes that manage to live up to the visionary writer's work verges on the infinitesimal, but The Endless is one of the special ones. There are direct references to The Colour Out Of Space, hints of things breeding among the spheres and the shadow of the black goat of the woods with a thousand young; there are also distinct similarities to some of Frank Herbert's lesser-known work. But the strength of The Endless is not in how it utilises these references (for all that doing so slyly contributes to its theme) but in how it builds up its own mythology, layer on layer, with extraordinary confidence. The expectation of oddness that we have on approaching a cult proves a wonderful opportunity for distraction, and by keeping the tone matter-of-fact, the writing/directing/acting team keep us with them as they travel into very strange territory indeed.

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Leaving a cult is a journey that lasts a lifetime, Justin says. There's a sense that he has to go through the same process every day to dissociate himself from the strange beliefs with which he grew up. When we meet them, despite some curious first impressions, the cult members come across as perfectly ordinary, friendly people who have simply chosen a different way of life. The only really distinctive thing about them is that they all look younger than they should (there's great work here from an ensemble of thirtysomething actors convincingly playing people a decade or two older), but Aaron quickly ascribes this to healthy living. He has a motive for minimising any signs of difference because of his immediate attraction to one of the women (Callie Hernandez), despite his brother's warnings about her. Offered good food, comfortable beds and constant evening entertainment, he's gradually persuaded that things aren't so bad here. But Justin remains suspicious. Why is it so easy to get lost in this place? Why does everyone seem to collect old audio and video tapes, even film reels? And what is the Ascension that everybody keeps talking about?

There's tragedy here, but it's not what you might expect, and nobody's motives are as simple as they first appear. The bond between the brothers keeps us rooting for them as a series of peculiar events point to wilder and wilder conclusions - yet for all the apparent illogic of its course, the story makes perfect sense once you put it all together It's visually brilliant from the opening frames right through until most of the end credits have rolled, and full of little details whose relationship might take a while to realise. One is reminded of the tale of blind men trying to describe an elephant by touching different parts of its body, but what our protagonists face here is something much more alien. Its parts are curiously arranged, extending into the mechanical, the cultural, and even the audience.

This isn't a film for genre fans who like their films fast and easily digested. It unfolds slowly, deliberately, and what you get out of it will be proportionate to the effort you're prepared to put in; this isn't a weakness, just the nature of the beast. Non-genre fans shouldn't be deterred by its trappings. It's a thoughtful, intellectually ambitious film with a strong human element, but be warned: the closer you let yourself get to it, the more you understand, the more the deep currents of fear beneath its surface will take possession of you, dragging you down. Forgetting it could take a lifetime.

Reviewed on: 23 Jun 2018
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Years after escaping a cult as teenagers, brothers Aaron and Justin return to their former home after receiving a mysterious message. While Aaron is quickly drawn back into the fold, Justin remains uneasy.
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