There’s an oddly aspirational context attached to the history of the horror genre given more than a few of the names who started out from it: George Clooney, Holly Hunter and Matthew McConaughey just to name a few. Though it’s difficult to contend most of these individuals owe their successes to the films they played minor or bit parts for or the genre itself, especially considering the countless other actors and filmmakers who also attempted to make it their launching point but failed to escape its clutch, looking back on such humble beginnings in a mostly derided genre grants each valorized victor an air of humanity often unconsciously repelled, in the eyes of casual onlookers, by gleaming celebrity.
Some of those who couldn’t escape may end up with endearing titles like ‘genre vet’ or ‘Scream Queen,’ but what of those who’ve intentionally made the genre their home, permanent or otherwise? Surely, they must feel the pull every now and then to take on a more diverse array of projects that might catapult them outside of insular genre fan circles. Writer-director-producer-stars of sleeper indie hit The Endless Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have not only been residing in these confines quite comfortably since 2012’s Resolution – a film sharing tangential and thematic connection to this one – and firmly established themselves as unique voices with 2014’s Lovecraftian, body-positive body horror romance Spring, but their most recent effort reaches beyond the common cosmic pessimism in which many Lovecraftian works engage.
For the two collaborators, who model themselves after the Coen brothers, The Endless might be read as a deeply personal venture exploring existential limitations and the subsequent pressures to bend, or in this case bend back, to the predominant ideologies to which one is predominantly exposed. Though it may rightly be undue speculation, one could additionally interpret its basic plot – two struggling brothers agreeing to revisit the alleged suicide cult they’d left ten years prior for closure’s sake – and revealed mythology as an even more personal metanarrative for two seasoned genre filmmakers wanting to break free from their genre, specifically Lovecraftian roots, caving to the pull of familiar-ish material – while ironically facilitating the complicated author’s penchant for fear of the unknown – and ultimately realizing or remembering the genre’s limitations.
Such may not be the most sustainable or cogent argument considering the two admitted to never consciously considering Lovecraft’s work with their two previous films, but it nonetheless may at least superficially fit in with their stated frustrations for easy categorization and the genre’s perceived boundaries. As such, Benson and Moorhead use their material to successfully shift preconceptions of horror, even cosmic horror, from the outside while their respective characters may or may not fail to escape the cult’s ideological restrictions from within. Quite a poignant touch of intentional or unintentional poeticism made whilst capturing and humanizing the struggle for existential affirmation; for finding one’s place in an uncaring, seemingly malevolent world.
Though it’s interesting witnessing this third vehicle of theirs display unconscious rebellion toward the mainstream horror manufacturing plant much of Hollywood’s genre slate resembles year in and year out, most intriguing is the duo’s ultimate rejecting of cosmic pessimism often espoused by Lovecraftian horror – despite what some might interpret is a bleak conclusion to the film’s story – without sacrificing the genre’s conventional, yet pervasive and affecting mood. It certainly portrays characters who have taken the philosophy to heart and calmly embody the absurdist hero trope, but Benson and Moorhead’s characters, despite the personality differences fueling their conflict, continually refuse the submission their surrounding believers routinely practice as if it were common behavior.
With the narrative being predominantly told through their individual and collective perspectives, we too see these events through and empathize with the isolated and shared prisms of growth from trauma. We effectively align ourselves with either at any given moment and internalize their confusion and heightening fear not just because of the weirdness they experience on its own terms, but also because of the basic, universal idea – fear of the unknown – it represents. There’s plenty of genre madness complemented by Moorhead’s ethereal visuals and overall deliberate storytelling thrown in for more immediately disquieting sequences that build the world’s overarching mythology, leading to its own successful payoff, but it’s a streamlined, focused approach toward showing, without unnecessary minutiae, what each moment means for our two protagonists and their potential development that makes the strangeness work.
A more humanized depiction of the cult’s followers than typically seen additionally helps in that regard, but with all of that said, considering how dependent the film’s atmosphere is upon the strength of character and evolution, perhaps it’s not surprising when periodic lulls in tonal effectiveness correspond to overly simplified character motivations and equal dead space in development. After The Endless’s midpoint, it shifts away from genre-type chills to ideas, but doesn’t much show how Benson or Moorhead’s characters adjust to or evolve with those contemplations. It isn’t that these ideas become less thought-provoking, but rather there doesn’t feel enough of a tangible change in character to support them.
Not to mention, it makes certain genre-esque moments feel more perfunctory than organic, as if the film is buying into a narrative structure it decries. Additionally, it’s difficult escaping the nagging feeling that not only are Benson and Moorhead’s parts written a little too broadly, but also that their relationship’s surface-level depth is undercut by a narrative that isolates their experiences and even skews more toward Benson’s skeptical perspective. Though that favoring in focus might be understandable considering it’s easier for an audience to put themselves in the place of a character, in this case Justin (Benson), viewing the world through a realistic lens, it occasionally feels as though it’s missing out on Aaron’s (Moorhead) viewpoint as he reenters a life he dearly misses in comparison to normal society.
Regardless, these complaints range from minor to superficial the more Benson and Moorhead get productive mileage out of their premise and potential metanarrative influences. At once both familiar and strongly representative of the unique voices they’ve developed as genre craftsmen – and thank goodness they ditched Spring’s overwhelming verbosity – it may cave to their comforts, but they are comforts wholly unsatisfied with the state of the genre they’ve called home. Perhaps it’s that overriding passion that carries The Endless toward the ‘sleeper hit’ qualifier that’s been patiently awaiting it since last year’s Tribeca. At the rate these two are going, the living conditions seem mighty fine.