Some directors need $100 million to make a movie, while others are more resourceful than MacGyver: Give them a camera, a location, and the cost of one year’s tuition at an Ivy League school, and they can make magic. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are just such wizards of ingenuity, to the extent that their latest, “The Endless,” devises an elaborate supernatural premise they can pull off with minimal special effects, counting among its many surprises the clever way it loops back around to their debut, “Resolution,” considerably expanding the scope and audacity of their micro-budget universe in the process.
While not flashy enough to rival blockbuster science fiction offerings at the box office, “The Endless” ought to delight those who like having their imaginations tickled by projects such as “Another Earth” and “The OA.” It’s the sort of brain-teaser that serves up a sequence of bizarre (and occasionally hokey) set pieces, only some of which it ultimately deigns to explain, keeping the audience guessing about a paranormal mystery that involves cults, time travel, and some sort of ambiguous Lovecraftian monster.
In the first of many unexpected twists, “The Endless” actually casts its writer-director duo in the two lead roles, as Moorhead and Benson play a pair of brothers with their own first names. The lone escapees of what they believe to be a “UFO death cult,” Aaron and Justin have spent a decade in the real world trying to move on with their lives when a package containing a video-taped message from a young lady in the group.
As far as Justin and the rest of society is concerned, the siblings were lucky: They got out before things got weird. But Aaron fears otherwise. He thinks they may have missed out, since the mysterious tape seems to confirm that “the Ascension” — that big, exclusive event the cult was waiting for — appears to have happened without them. With virtually nothing else going on in their lives, Aaron insists that they go back, if only for a day, to see what has happened to the quasi-family they left behind.
Returning to an obscure campsite somewhere in the California desert (actually, south of Los Angeles — and beyond the boob-shaped nuclear reactors at San Onofre), the brothers find the cult operating more or less as they left it. No one appears to have aged, and as far as they can tell, the Ascension hasn’t happened. The woman who sent them the tape (Callie Hernandez) claims to have no idea what they’re talking about, and the cult leader (Tate Ellington) seems far less menacing than they remember him. And yet, something is definitely off.
Realizing how much he has missed this sense of community and the idea that his life actually had purpose, Aaron begs Justin to stay for one additional night, and then another, clearly trying to extend their trip indefinitely, even as the number of red flags accumulate. At times, the directors are being weird for the sake of being weird, as when the characters witness a flock of birds flying in a strange donut pattern off in the near distance, only to turn their heads and see the same phenomenon happening in the opposite direction. Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore, but where exactly are they taking us?
To reveal too much more would be to spoil the film’s unique, mind-bending delights, other than to point out that Moorhead and Benson previously appeared as cult members in their debut feature, while confirming that the lead actors of “Resolution” — a freaky supernatural horror movie in which a guy stages an extreme intervention with his drug-addict friend at a remote cabin — are revived as peripheral characters here. Audiences needn’t have seen that film to appreciate this one, although it adds a dimension (so to speak) to the mystery of infinitely looping, seemingly impossible old videocassettes.
Moorhead, who doubles as the duo’s cinematographer, has always had a great eye, elevating the look of their films far above their modest means. Whereas dusty, dirt-brown palettes are typically among the least interesting to watch, strategic injections of digital effects (the birds, the shadowy beast, big trees that tumble unexpectedly in the background, etc.) transform this potentially dull rural location into an unnerving stage for the film’s ever-growing sense of menace. We may as well be on Mars, and if the directors had the budget, we probably would — except that they’ve successfully grounded the entire premise via this notion of family.
Aaron and Justin (the characters) are essentially orphans. While a false sense of family draws them back to the cult who raised them, Aaron’s return ultimately has more to do with the connection between the two siblings and the relatable need to be acknowledged and respected by his older brother. Moorhead and Benson may not be movie-star charismatic in the lead roles, but the bond between them is palpable, delivering just the dynamic the movie needs. Moorhead’s unafraid to play vulnerable and weak, while Benson has a gruff Jake Gyllenhaal-esque quality that suggests additional career possibilities in case this whole directing thing doesn’t pan out — although by all appearances, the pair have nothing to worry about on that front. Even if the money dries up, their stock of wild, movie-worthy ideas is … well, endless.