Vancouver International Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 13, 2017. Screening films from more than 70 countries on nine screens, VIFF’s program includes the pick of the world’s top film fests and many undiscovered gems.
Overview: Two brothers revisit the cult they escaped years before to confront their past and present. Snowfort Pictures; 2017; Not Rated; 111 minutes.
Hey, Guys: We’ve been fans of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead for a long time. It began with Resolution, their first inventive indie horror back in 2012, continued in 2014 with their dark romance Spring, and rounds out this year with their latest work, The Endless, a cult-centric horror flick that has more than earned its spot on any best-of list of the year. The pair are some of the best filmmakers working today thanks to their fresh vision, willingness to experiment, and obvious chemistry and charisma, all things that come across in their latest feature film.
The Endless is a complex story about the nature of cults, brotherhood, and, in some ways, grief. The film starts with two quotes, one by Lovecraft describing that our greatest fear is that of the unknown, and the other an anonymous quote about the confessional status of siblings. It sets the tone for the adventure and never wavers from it, sometimes scary, always unsettling, and surprisingly heartfelt. What follows is another well-written and memorable film from the pair that lends itself to multiple viewings.
Clean Break: Justin and Aaron, played by themselves, are brothers who escaped a “UFO Death Cult” years earlier. Justin is the eldest, hailed for removing his brother from the unhealthy community they were once part of. He’s the provider—his brother’s keeper—working hard to build some semblance of a normal life for them both. But Aaron is resentful, too young to remember the atrocities recounted to him, bitter about a lack of money and their mundane life. He feels he had no choice in leaving and after receiving a videotape in the mail, requests to return to Camp Acadia to receive closure about his widely publicized departure. Justin, caring for his younger brother, reluctantly agrees and so the two make the long drive back to confront their origin story and learn the truth about the people and the life they left behind.
Cult movies, though one of the most entertaining subgenres, can be pretty standard fare, but The Endless takes unique risks and plays with its subject matter to great effect. Is it really a death cult, as Justin professed to the news media, forcing castration and suggesting mass suicide? Or is it a commune of people who just wanted out of the grind of everyday life? When they arrive, though the years have passed the residents of the camp look much the same which they attribute to their natural healthy diet and the special barley that they use to make and sell their beer. In many ways the lifestyle is attractive. Each person has their own role and their life is easy; full of fresh air, fresh vegetables, and freedom. They each do their part so that nobody has to leave and there is no indication that anybody wants to, save Justin.
This does more to inflame Aaron’s doubts about his brother’s choice to leave. Aaron misses the aforementioned benefits of communal living and turns a blind eye to the most “culty” activities: group team-building exercises like ‘The Struggle,’ pulling a rope from an unseen force in the darkness, strange motivational speeches by the leader, and the most bizarre characters like Smiling Dave who maybe trepinated himself, or the man who walks in anger but doesn’t seem to see them at all. He doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the fact that there are two moons in the sky, a reflective vision of his surroundings and the clearest indicator that something really weird might actually be going on.
This is much more believable than it sounds, and anyone who has been part of such a group can relate. Leaving behind a community, especially a faith-based one, is extremely difficult whether you’re permitted to go or not. The most difficult change to adapt to is the easy sense of camaraderie and friendship with the other members. In such a tight-knit group, it’s easy to overlook strange behaviour that outsiders might see as a glaring symbol of misappropriation of power or dangerous groupthink. If everyone has their place and purpose, why change? You all believe the same principles that guide your life so making connections and concessions is easy. Severing community ties is painful no matter how good it may be for your personal well being, or no matter how little you may still believe in the “truth.”
The Hero: It’s Justin, through his doubting nature and assertive insistence on protecting his brother who discovers the truth. Well, as much of the truth as can be discovered, most of which cannot be discussed for risk of major spoilers. Really, sometimes the truth is just the story we’ve told ourselves enough times to believe it. Suffice it to say, the people in Camp Acadia may not be as crazy as he once thought. In fact, they may just be one moving cog in something much larger than he or we can even begin to understand. But what’s most important here is whether or not Justin still has the personal freedom to participate or not with what’s happening around him.
As expected, the cast of The Endless is rock solid. Every minor character plays their part with a balance of subtlety and genuineness, leading us to take them at face value but always wonder about something just hidden behind the eyes. Callie Hernandez (La La Land, Alien: Covenant) as Anna is remarkable, giving looks that say so much more than she will allow herself to. Kira Powell (whose most-noted role has her credited as ‘unsatisfied hipster’) along with side characters like Shitty Carl (James Jordan) brings a hefty dose of strange to the screen acting as an artistic medium for the weirdness that’s going on behind the scenes. There is a constant perfect balance of strange and serious going on so that the audience is never really sure what it’s origin or authenticity is.
Fans of Moorhead and Benson’s prior work will be richly rewarded throughout The Endless with nods to their previous films, tying them together in the most satisfying ways and underlining their message. Maybe everybody’s just trying to get through their situation the best way they know how. Depending on your personal philosophy, we are, much like the characters in The Endless, stuck in our own determined lifecycle. And if we are unhappy with the lives we have chosen (because we’re all living the life we chose, to some degree) escaping it can be terrifying and painful. Maybe even impossible. But if we’re willing to honestly face ourselves and the ones we love we have a greater chance of making the life that we want to live. It just hurts until it doesn’t.
Overall: Moorhead and Benson have delivered again with a clever and entertaining story about coming to terms with your past and taking control of your future.
Featured Image: Well Go USA Entertainment