Film of the Week: The Humans
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
'If you're so miserable, why are you trying to live forever?'
I’ve stated my love for “non-horror” horror cinema at least twice before on this site, but I’ll gladly reiterate. Mulholland Drive, Shiva Baby, Boy Erased, Under the Skin and any other film that can never be defined as a horror film, but conjures the same feeling of terror nonetheless: they’re a special breed of film. And if this quasi-genre constitutes my life-blood, then realistic character studies of dysfunctional families are my soul. The Humans, adapted by Stephen Karam from his own Pulitzer finalist and Tony winning play, fulfils on both fronts.
As a family congregates in their youngest daughters new home for Thanksgiving, The Humans code shifts imperceptibly between personal drama and oppressive dread. Anyone, once alone and separated from the pack, becomes overwhelmed inside the grotty apartment. The walls creak and leak and blister, noise bashes into their skulls from neighbours and trash compactors, lightbulbs blow and the darkness hems them deeper in. The decay inside reminds them all too starkly of their mortality; of the strain and ugliness of age and deterioration. And the figures and lights that pass by the mottled windows outside: something unknowable in the beyond... But they always reconvene with one another. Always. And when together, there is reprieve. The family laughs at their own fright, they reminisce, give thanks, torment each other—as fiercely close yet fierce families do. Aimee (Amy Schumer) opines that there's a choice between being sad and being sad together. They are all sad. And they are each others people.
'In our family, we don't get that kind of depression.'
'No, just a lot of stoic sadness.'
It's a technically impeccable film. The screenplay delivers exposition seamlessly; the dialogue is realistic in terms of content and conversational patterns (Karam does something technically clever in the screenplay, writing unsaid words in parentheticals for his actors; it's incredibly tight scripting for such natural performances). The cinematography by Lol Crawley, specifically the framing, makes the claustrophobic and very finite space feel infinite. It is among the best camerawork achieved in such a narrow space that I've ever seen: capturing characters through doorways as a standard, examining the environment in extreme detail. The production design is deceptive, clever so as to appear empty yet provide incredible glimpses of visual meaning. The best being the projector: a fire beamed onto the wall that Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), thinking about cremation, turns off; the Earth from space that mesmerises Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Richard (Steven Yeun), the latter who speaks of aliens who tell their children monster stories about humankind. It's one of the least “stagey” stage adaptation you will ever see.
And the cast are an inspiration, really conveying characters both lived in and spent living with one another. Jayne Houdyshell and Schumer are heartbreaking revelations, carrying the most devastating weight as the film progresses. Revelations for different reasons: Houdyshell the award winning lone returnee from the stage play, unsung in film; and Schumer known more as a polarising but ever-game comic, never before revealing a deft dramatic touch. It’s testament they hold their own against heavyweight Jenkins, and now recognised talents in Yeun and Feldstein. June Squibb’s contribution will understandably go undervalued, but her depiction of alzheimers is frightening, most certainly in the slightest moments. Her character Momo is no longer of this world, but is offered the same reprieve given to all of the family.
'Do not worry about me once I drift off for good. I am not scared.'
The family never know where her mind is speaking from, but are all too aware that her words are meant for them. The Humans never lets you forget that much like the punishing environment engulfing them, this family is very much living—their problems byproduct of that very fact. It may not end on a hopeful note, with the world crashing down around them. Yet, you can't help feel they will soldier on, as humans do.