“It’s funny, we never anticipate the ways we isolate ourselves from the ones we care about.” – The Endless
Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are no strangers to the bizarre. The stories they tell are unorthodox. A man administers a cold-turkey detox on his best friend in a rural cabin, and time and events become more and more malleable over the course of the week. A troubled young man travels to Italy and falls in love with a woman hiding an ancient secret. Two brothers receive a mysterious message that prompts them to revisit a cult they once belonged to. All of these stories explore the human condition through the lens of the fantastic, and all of them are heavily character-driven. Throughout the variety of circumstances and settings, a single thread runs throughout the characters and the consequences they endure for the decisions they make: emotional honesty.
2012 saw the writer-director team’s first feature film Resolution, in which Michael (Peter Cilella) journeys to a cabin at the edge of Indian reservation territory in a final effort to get his crack-addicted childhood friend Chris (Vinny Curran) to clean up and sort his life out. He does this by prodding his buddy with a stun gun and handcuffing him to an exposed pipe in the bare-bones dwelling, with the promise that he’ll release Chris after a seven day detox. The isolated area is a magnet for strange people and spooky events. It starts with Michael discovering creepy photographs under the cabin, but quickly escalates to multiple forms of media capturing all manner of events in the vicinity. Rituals, suicides, you name it. It becomes clear to the men in the cabin that they, too, are part of this long-running surveillance. They are part of a story, and the ending might not be a happy one.
While Resolution is more focused on the inherent sadism in storytelling than anything else, the story itself hinges upon the friendship of its principal characters. Mike and Chris go way back. So far back, in fact, that at one point Chris suggests that Mike’s efforts to intervene in his tailspin are more selfish than noble. He reminds Michael of several incidents back in their school days, when Chris would physically defend Michael from bullies. Is this intervention an effort on Mike’s part to redeem himself, assert himself as a hero? Chris thinks so, and says so outright. It could have been his withdrawals talking, but Chris is consistent in his brutal honesty from the beginning (when offered coffee, he asks, “Is there crack in it, motherfucker?”). So when he tells Mike that he punches “like a windsock” and that he needs to “man up” before his wife leaves him “for a stronger man”, the biting humor of those statements are underscored with Chris’ own brand of tough love. It’s who he is. His frankness draws a heavy contrast to both of the men featured in Benson and Moorhead’s latest effort, The Endless.
In The Endless, Justin Smith and his younger brother Aaron (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, taking the starring roles in their own movie) don’t communicate well. Justin feels an exhausting responsibility toward Aaron’s well-being, something that Aaron doesn’t fully appreciate. Aaron’s memories of the “commune” he and Justin fled from are warm and fuzzy. While Justin claims that the men of the cult are castrated and that the group was preparing for a mass suicide, Aaron remembers only comfort and happiness from his youth spent there. It’s a far cry from the post-cult life the brothers lead in the beginning of The Endless; their minimum-wage jobs aren’t enough to keep their car from being repossessed, or to provide them with shelter nicer than the tiny, dingy apartment they reside in. As if life after the cult isn’t hard enough, Aaron feels the added pressure of his older brother’s protective need to control everything. From who drives the car to who gets the top bunk in the cabin, Justin knows best and won’t hear any of his brother’s protests. Aaron is naturally resentful at this imbalance, though he would never tell him that, as he relates to the cult deprogramming counselor. It’s that poor communication that heightens tension between the siblings, threatening their bond and eventually, life as they know it. Even when they do talk, the brothers quarrel over the words they use: “cult” versus “commune”, “grave” versus “memorial”, they even argue over the colloquial use of the phrase “slept with”. Despite the marked difference between the Smith brothers’ guarded relationship in The Endless and the emotionally caustic but genuine texture of Chris’ interactions with his would-be savior in Resolution, both bonds are strained under the weight of what is not said.
There is a similarity between the platonic union and the sibling relationship of both films. Resolution’s Chris, for his part, tells Michael in every way he can that he is never going to rehab and he wants to live and die on his own terms. But does he truly want to die? It’s a question that Michael is convinced he knows the answer to, no matter what his pal tells him. The disparity between what Chris wants, what’s best for him, and what prerogative Michael has in Chris’ story is at the origin of nearly every conflict between the pair. It’s the same well-meaning but presumptuous assumption of power that Justin exerts over his baby brother in The Endless.
“Friends tell each other how they feel with relative frequency, siblings wait for a more convenient time, like their deathbeds.” – The Endless
But baby brother Aaron is unfulfilled, that much he can tell Justin. After receiving a harmless enough tape from the cult, he wants to go back. Just for a day. Hoping that this is the pathway to closure for both of them, Justin agrees to return to the compound. The trip is marked by ominous phenomena. Birds fly in strange patterns and seemingly defy physics. The cult members have a bizarre exercise that should, by all logic, be impossible. Objects and places disappear and reappear. Even the sky changes. Time and time again, Justin brushes it off and refuses to talk about it with his brother. There is a telling campfire scene at the compound in which Shane (Shane Brady) does a simple card trick for Justin. When Shane correctly guesses the card Justin picked from the deck, Justin lies and says that it’s not the card he picked. When faced with an event he can neither control nor account for, Justin will deny it entirely. This attitude extends to the brothers’ dynamic. Whenever Aaron tries to do things on his own terms, big brother shuts it down immediately. As the commune visit gets more and more alarmingly surreal, the brothers can’t surpass their mounting mistrust in one another. It’s the single biggest internal threat to the brothers’ survival, once things start getting weird.
An interesting note about these kinships: Benson and Moorhead don’t go the more orthodox route of using genre tropes to make their characters’ decisions for them. Both pairs of men, in Resolution and The Endless, have full agency over their choices, and are even allowed to make terrible choices that defy expectations for the narrative that horror and sci-fi has laid out for them. It’s especially apparent in Resolution, wherein Mike and Chris’ bond is not strengthened through the horrific elements that befall them. As the pair realize that not only are they being watched but they are being manipulated into a storyline that they have little control over, the moment of truth arrives. In any other film, it would be the moment in which Chris is struck with clarity and proclaims, “You’re right. I’m a mess. Take me to rehab and help me help myself.” This is when Han Solo decides to finally stop looking out for Number One and give aid to the rebellion. But the storytellers refuse to give us that leap towards arc completion. Instead, after a long pause, Chris hangs his head and says, “I’m never, ever going to rehab.” The friends spend most of the third act trying to stay ahead of their own pre-destined plot, all character flaws intact. It’s not until the final 10 minutes of the film that Chris finally admits that he doesn’t want to live this life. It’s only then that he decides to change his ending, or as Michael says in the last line of the film, “try it a different way.”
Michael isn’t off the hook, either. His devotion to his friend is, at first, the driving force behind the circumstances that thrust them into harm’s way. But Michael, despite efforts to remain the trustworthy one of the pair, hasn’t been entirely truthful with Chris or himself. After a thorough reading by Chris, Michael admits that he is on sort of a hero’s journey that has little to do with Chris. He needs someone to save. But he waited too long to say so, his integrity has been undermined. In the time it took for Mike to finally be truthful with himself and the man he was trying to save, a slew of external factors (seriously, it’s impossible to be any more specific without spoiling the entire third act of this movie) threaten their lives. The concept of story endings comes up frequently in Resolution and I can’t help but wonder if Mike’s bad-faith communication (internally and toward his friend) put the pair on the trajectory they were on, toward the ending they ultimately got.
Benson and Moorhead didn’t feature a central male duo in their 2014 film Spring. It’s a simple enough romance on the surface (as lovey-dovey as Lovecraft could get, anyway), wherein a listless young man named Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), after burying his dearly departed mother, travels to Italy for some soul-searching and falls in love with the flirty Louise (Nadia Hilker) during his travels. The secret she harbors is representative of the deep-seated issues we all bring in to our relationships. There are certainly male relationships in the film; it’s Evan’s childhood friend Tommy who prompts him to get out of Southern California and see the world. Tommy cares for his friend, as evidenced by the bar fight he provokes when some tweaker gives Evan a hard time the day of his mother’s funeral. But this relationship isn’t quite fulfilling enough for Evan. He needs more than the juvenile stagnancy that has become his daily routine. Evan has outgrown everything that Tommy represents: the wild one-night stands with no strings attached, the impulsive barroom brawls, the debilitating hangovers. Evan needs more.
One of the issues that Evan and Louise grapple with is mortality, our own and that of our loved ones. The theme finds a home in the dynamic between Evan and farmer Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti), a peripheral character. Among his many duties on the farm, Angelo cares for a grove of citrus trees; he takes existing life and cultivates growth, grafting this and that in order to create an improved life form. In exchange for room and board on the farm (a setting stocked with the necessary provisions but ultimately feeling like a hollow shell of the lively place it once was), Evan is tasked with assisting the blunt but kind-hearted Angelo, during which he receives life counsel in broken English. It’s a tried-and-true staple of romance films: the desperate protagonist, in their search for fulfillment, receives valuable lessons on love and life from an elderly character who’s been around the block and knows a thing or two. But consider the source: Angelo is a widower who struggles with grief after losing his wife years before. Like Evan, his loss has made him incomplete. He’s a man around 50 years Evan’s senior, facing the same conflicts with the grieving process and, by extension, serving as a reminder of the loss of loved ones that Evan fears so much and which threatens to hold back his budding relationship with Louise (among other spoiler-y issues). So while Spring doesn’t showcase a brotherhood dynamic in its main focus, Benson and Moorhead effectively utilized romantic genre tropes to underline the film’s central themes and showcased the relevance of emotional vulnerability to a satisfying life.
As with the men of Resolution, self-awareness is of paramount importance. Its absence is just as threatening as any agent of the Unknown. The best chance at a happily ever after begins, as Evan learns in Spring, with cognizance of our fears and hopes. And if The Endless is any indication, communicating those secrets mean the difference between the same tired existence and a happy ending.