I have long maintained that there are two things and two things alone that you need to make a good film; a smart idea and a camera. Don’t get me wrong, I love big special effects movies but that stuff is only ever the icing on the cake. Pretty computer graphics have yet to save a film if the story is rubbish and plenty of movies have done just fine without them.
Of course some genres, such as Science Fiction, tend to demand some kind of effects budget. Even here though there have been some superb movies made with little more than a few committed actors and a clever script. Take films like Sound of my Voice, Primer, Safety Not Guaranteed and Coherence. Each of these movies are brilliant and all four together were probably made for less than a Marvel movie’s catering budget. In the case of Coherence they literally had nine performers, a house and a cardboard box and still it is one of the most captivating Sci-Fi films to have emerged from America in the last decade.
Now we have The Endless which is another superb low cost fantasy film built around a neat little story idea. This film does have some on screen effects but they are minimal and even if this is through necessity rather than design it works in its favour. Less is definitely more here and the unfussy, naturalistic style of the rest of the movie just makes the subtle SFX imagery more effective. Written, directed, shot, edited and performed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the film tells the story of two brothers who return to visit the commune they fled from as adolescents ten years earlier for fear of it being a suicide cult. One of the siblings has always wondered if they’d have had a better life if they’d stayed and on receiving a message from someone they knew there, clearly showing that none of them killed themselves, they decide a brief visit may offer some closure.
Seeing the place they grew up with adult eyes they soon learn that strange things are indeed going on but it isn’t the people they used to live with that are in charge and it isn’t necessarily them that present the threat. To say too much more would take something away from the viewing experience but The Endless is an endlessly intriguing film that slowly and curiously builds to its satisfying (if never fully explained) revelations. Interestingly the title is a pretty big clue to what’s going on but you still don’t see it coming. It turns out there are four different habitats affected by the same strange external forces and the group that raised the boys are getting off relatively lightly by comparison. There are a few scenes here that will repeat on you for a while after you’ve watched them.
The Endless definitely shares a sensibility with Alex Garland’s Annihilation and while it doesn’t quite have the imagination of that film or anything near the resources, it has similar ambition. It is this ambition and conviction that fuels the film, just like the movies mentioned above. The cinematography is strong, the editing effective, the compositing slick and the acting more than sufficient (these guys have the full range of film making skills) but it is the story and their confidence in it that give The Endless everything it needs.
This is the kind of film that would never, could never and should never be made in Hollywood. A larger budget could actually kill much of its charm. (See Midnight Special that had similar thinky notions but lost it’s way a little with its big CGI ending.) This movie thrives on its limitations, capitalises on its simple strengths and entertains and enthrals more than the majority of mainstream movies.
It is fairly inevitable that one of the studios will notice Benson and Moorhead sooner or later and hire them for something with a higher profile and expectations to match. They have played with slightly bigger budgets before, with their last film Spring, and were able to keep things idea driven so hopefully they will not be crushed by the mainstream movie machine as other promising directors previously have. These guys are first and foremost smart storytellers and I hope this will always be what sets their movies apart.
The Endless is streaming and on disc now.