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A Catholic friend of mine is fond of saying “That’s gonna burn” when he looks back on this or that moment of personal failure. He imagines that when he dies and faces his final judgment, he will be shown a movie of his entire life — with God, the angels, and the whole company of saints in attendance — before the verdict is reached and the sentence pronounced. Everything will be brought to light by the bulb of that celestial projector — everything. If he blushes with embarrassment at his private recollection here on earth, how much more will he burn with shame once his sins are brought forth for public examination?

Of course, it helps if the divine cinematographer is ultimately loving and merciful. Imagine if he were just an omniscient, omnipotent bastard, forever toying with you and forever recording the proceedings for his own personal amusement? A good bit of the initial drama in The Endless, the latest lo-fi gem from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (they star and co-direct, and Benson writes), comes from the uncertainty over exactly which sort of God — entity, force, what have you — is holding the camera.

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The Endless ***

Whatever he may be, the camera here is not a metaphor. The film opens with the delivery of a thoroughly real VHS tape to Justin and Aaron (their names in the film as well), a pair of brothers eking out an unhappy urban existence together as cleaners. They’re barely getting by — spending a few bucks on an old VCR to play the tape means not replacing the car battery — and not just financially. It seems they’re escapees from a sort of UFO cult, except they haven’t really escaped. They’re locked in a toxic dynamic with each other: Justin is the controlling, protective older brother who got them out, while Aaron is stuck resenting his sibling for never considering whether he really wanted to leave. Or much of anything else, for that matter.

The VHS tape serves as a possible break from that loop: it shows a cult member — let’s call it The Group — talking about an upcoming event, and maybe wishing the brothers a fond farewell. A suicide pact? Whatever it is, it’s enough to rouse Aaron to push Justin to go back: for one day, for closure, for him. Justin doesn’t like it, but he lets his brother take the lead, and the two head into the California desert, stopping for a moment at the spot where their mother died in a car accident — and where they were rescued by The Group.

As ever, a cult only works onscreen — and maybe in real life as well — if it has some real, relatable appeal. If you’re going to ask people to leave the world behind, you’ve got to offer something the world isn’t giving. An experience of transcendence and a sense of one’s place in the created order are good, of course, but they’re also abstract, and hard to grok at first glance. Other goods are more concrete and immediate: say, food and drink. Aaron repeatedly swoons, both in memory and in the moment, over the wholesome, substantial food in Groupland. And he’s right: it’s a damn sight better than powdered chicken flavoring on ramen noodles he’s been subsisting on back in town. And hello: there’s beer, good beer. (Selling it is how The Group keeps body and soul together, sort of like the Carthusian monks of Chartreuse.)

Video:

The Endless trailer

It also helps, in these Facebooked and alienated times, to offer a genuine sense of community, a place where everyone isn’t forever competing for attention, affection, or advancement. The Group shines here as well: they take care of each other, value each other, delight in each other. So what if you can’t sing? Get up there and do some karaoke! We’re your fans! Oh, and then let’s gather outside and engage in a literal tug of war with a mysterious Thing in the night sky. We call it the The Struggle. It’s a real thing, but also a splendid image of humanity working out its relation to The Powers That Be. You’re probably not going to win, but that’s not the point. And besides, we’re all in this together.

Naturally, Justin the skeptic has a harder time of it, even as he witnesses things he can’t explain and watches his brother come to life. Faith does tend to seem loopy, and even dangerous, to the faithless. But skepticism has its virtues: it makes you wary, so that you notice things like a locked shack, or a crying woman sitting by herself. Yes, some loops are less obviously toxic than the one you’re stuck in with your brother, but they may have dangers of their own. Plus, God plays kind of a mean trick with his next video, one that burns plenty.

Benson, it’s worth mentioning, is a San Diegan, and it shows in the excellent use the film makes of our golden, arid back country. (The Group’s Camp Arcadia is actually Descanso’s Camp Oliver.) America’s Finest City comes to a delightfully abrupt halt as you head east, giving way to something very much like proximate wilderness, one step removed from civilization without being completely isolated. (You gotta be able to sell your beer in town, after all.) The location melds with the spare writing and restrained performances to create a mood of deepening dread amid the obvious positives. I won’t say more, except that the eventual reveal fits with the film’s overall intelligence and interest in people and existence over spectacle and action. (Though there’s some of that as well.) The Endless is a smart, sweetly creepy good time.

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