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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: The Humans (2021)

This year we have had a number of stage plays and musicals making their leap to the big screen. But the two that are notably significant are Florian Zeller’s devastating The Father and Stephen Karam’s The Humans. These are significant due to the fact that these critically lauded and award-winning plays are adapted by their very own creators. Both Zeller and Karam took full advantage of what film has to offer in amplifying their themes and ideas, but thankfully neither of them lose sight of the blood, guts and soul of what made their stage plays effective in the first place.

Taking place over a single Thanksgiving, three generations of the Blakes (Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, June Squibb, Amy Schumer) come together at daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun)’s new apartment in lower Manhattan.

Although I am unable to relate to Thanksgiving as a holiday due to never having lived in the US to experience one, it’s still a surprisingly easy piece to relate to as this could be any family reunion. It works as an existential think-piece, one that plays and experiments with genre conventions the same way Zeller did with The Father as it further challenges the text differently as it makes its transition to the big screen. Like Zellar, Karam takes advantage of the new storytelling “toys” at his disposal, but doesn’t lose sight of what the piece is about at its core as well as the different interpretations the audience may unpack from it.

Family and gratitude is an important theme within any piece set on and around Thanksgiving, but The Humans isn’t as simple as that. Generational differences in terms of religion, attitude on mental health, careers and even sexuality play a part in the conflicting conversations and characters that evolve throughout. The apartment is riddled with hidden cracks, bubbling paint, faulty lightbulbs, water leaks through the ceiling and walls, the doors creak, etc. These start to become more apparent as each family member interacts with one another, giving further insight into each other's past, present and future. There’s an unspoken, almost completely ignored sadness beneath each of them, but they are still compelled to stick together despite the flaws and grievances they may feel towards one another. The ailing building reminds me of Repulsion and how the apartment played a pivotal role in Carole (Catherin Deneuve)’s sanity as she begins to succumb to the traumas and fears of the past, present and future. Karam uses his setting in the same way, implying the existence of old and new scars as they run deep within a family doing their best to hide and accept the current state of their lives.

Dreams play an important role in understanding ourselves as we unpack where we are in our own lives thanks to the almost prophetic role it has. Erik (Jenkins) and Richard often talk about their dreams, but Erik confines in him about a recurring dream he often has. In this dream, Erik finds himself in a tunnel but he never goes towards the light at the end of it. Richard suggests that he should pass through it next time, as it could be a “favourable omen”. The opening shots of the film have us looking up from an apartment courtyard, but the sky and the top of the buildings are the only visible elements as we are surrounded by darkness. This is a tunnel that the Blakes need to pass through, but we should seriously consider passing through it as well. Karam plays with this tunnel-vision motif throughout, placing us far away from our characters in the various hallways and corners of the apartment, sometimes tracking in as we look to push through while others have us routed in our spot. Karam very rarely moves the camera, but when we do push-in or track around our subjects, it is in important moments of clarity as characters reveal their internal and external fears and anxieties, effectively allowing us to push through this tunnel with them as they try to make progress emotionally and spiritually. As the film gets darker both literally and metaphorically, we are poked and prodded into making the dash for the light at the end of the tunnel as fear, desperation and irrational thoughts threaten to freeze us up. Just push through, it’ll all be ok.

Karam plays with horror conventions that turn The Humans into something more than just a talky holiday movie. Karam decides early on to keep the camera at a static distance. For a large majority of the film, we view these conversations as long-shots, opting in very few cases to push in for a closer look at our characters, and even then, it’ll be from the back of someone's head or at an odd angle, not fully revealing them to us. The long shots make us feel like we are watching a play, but it also implies that they are possibly not alone. Karam’s visual approach is unsettling in this regard. He also implies this possibility throughout with the odd close-up on a feather as an unknown, gentle breeze softly flows through it. Obscure shadows pass by the frosted/dirty windows. Mirrors are attached to doors that slowly creak open, encouraging us to keep our eyes open for the possible sighting of a ghoulish figure in its reflection. His camera language is subtle, never granting us full access to these characters as they refuse to even grant full access to each other. Although empty, the apartment feels like a winding labyrinth as we begin to lose track of characters traversing through it. Moments of quiet introspection, as well as panic-inducing fear, begins to crowd our senses as the sun begins to set, with each breaking lightbulb leaving us stammering in the dark.

Sound is as important as the visual aspects of The Humans. Even though its thanksgiving, it’s oddly quiet in the building with what feels like they are the only people in the world. Sporadic jump scares come from the neighbour above them, the garbage shoot as well as the pipes in the walls - keeping us on our toes as we dread and suspect an unknown entity that may or may not appear. The sound is so important in developing this unwelcome sense of dread as power lines hum, water boils and voices echo throughout. Are they really alone? Or are we just imagining things?

Although Erik is the focal point in tying the film’s ideas, secrets and themes together, it’s a true ensemble piece. Karam’s excellent dialogue and characterization of each role allow for the performers to work their way into their respective parts without it ever feeling forced or rushed. Each performance is subtle, allowing for great individual performances to blend together more effectively, never detracting away from the themes and ideas at play within The Humans. Even when there are noticeable generational differences towards religion, career, sexuality, mental health, etc. Karam avoids going for the excessively confrontational route, opting for conversation over loud banging and screaming one now expects films of this nature to lean towards. It’s an ensemble that carries Karam’s words and direction with a heightened level of confidence and instinct that you’d expect from a cast who has been performing this piece for years on stage, knowing every facet of it. They’re a lived-in, relatable family appropriately laid bare within the literally bare environment of the apartment.

The Humans isn’t officially a horror film, but it might as well be. The unnerving atmosphere found throughout adds another layer to the complexities of its characters, themes and story. Like The Father, it’s a domestic drama masquerading as a horror, playing with the conventions of the genre that is consistently unsettling and highly effective.

Where you can watch it: In theatres and on Showtime (USA), In cinemas December 24th (UK),

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