The Humans and the Complexity of Our Bonds

Amir goes below the surface in his review of The Humans to talk about how the film handles connection and empathy.

When you think about it, it’s quite remarkable the idea that a group of people with their own lives, unique schedules and subjective fears still manage to make the most effort in order to see one another. It’s something that isn’t really thought of too much, we are social creatures after all and it’s just something that’s inherently understood. But the thought alone makes a great case for humanity, despite at times also being a showcase of the worst in all of us. As idealistic and possibly naïve as it may be, family or not, strangers or otherwise; we are what we got and we do our best to work past the horrors of life to be there for each other, just as much as we give into fear and spend time punching down or worse, being isolated. The Humans, the Tony award winning one act play adapted into a film about a family gathering for Thanksgiving, seems to understand the idealistic and naïve part of life pretty well with a fair amount of nuance and empathy. So good in fact that I wasn’t prepared for the downright terrifying existential horror to appear in maximum effect, making for a movie that plays with genre in a way that really turns the family drama template on its head.

In many ways The Humans is a film about post-9/11, but really the disaster could be interchangeable. The film was released a few months after New York City had some of the worst flooding in history, with eleven casualties as a result of illegal basement apartments which also happens to be the setting of this story. But it also arrives at a weird time for the world and its COVID situation, where many large families have gathered together only for the virus to decimate them. There are even hints of the Great Recession of 2007 that plagued the younger and older generation in equal measure. The Humans is a ghost story in a way; one where the living are ghosts and what haunts us are our hopes and goals, our safety and the world we thought we knew. The film carries the weight of grief, just as much as it carries the weight of joy only a family dinner, or congregation of people in general can bring. As we get acquainted with the Blake family, we begin to learn a bit about their troubles and their passions from family patriarch Erik (Richard Jenkins) and his deeply unsettling nightmares to composer and stuck in student debt daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) doing her best to play hostess. There’s even June Squibb as a grandmother going through dementia that for the most part is a silent participant save for a few outbursts and one really surreal and emotional moment of cognitive recognition.

Holidays can be a claustrophobic time where personal business gets aired out like a daily news report, where there’s simply no choice but to co-exist in a space and hope for the best. Stephen Karam and cinematographer Lol Crawley (who framed the excellent 45 Years and pop-curio Vox Lux) understands that by allowing his film to feel just as claustrophobic, utilizing tight and off-balanced shot composition to really give into that sense. They draw our eye to characters monologuing while having completely separate background events blurred in the background. The way the camera slowly moves through the two story apartment, gliding through tight corridors, phasing through walls or sitting stationary framed from far away gives a sense of unease, but also curiosity. The geometry of the apartment brought to mind the work of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, a novel that delves into the surreal horrors of life featuring a home that feels both abnormally large and eerily claustrophobic just like the Chinatown apartment we find ourselves in.

Despite this, The Humans isn’t inherently a horror film. There’s just as much laughter and joy to be had during its runtime as there are moments of well-earned jump scares. Scenes where Brigid and polar opposite sister Aimee (Amy Schumer, a genuine surprise) jump together hand in hand laughing to demonstrate the creakiness of floors, or when Brigid’s husband Richard (an understated Steven Yeun) sets up a projector to play a fireplace for “ambience,” help off-set the tension and lull the viewer in a false sense of safety before the next big bump in the night. These smaller moments of humanity, the kinds we don’t really give too much attention to are what fuel The Humans. There’s a quote from video essayist Noah Caldwell-Gervais in his review of video game SOMA that fits perfectly when describing this film; after detailing a character’s memory of feeling a part of something whole he says, “I feel small and useless and a little broken than I care to admit, but sometimes I also feel so in love with the living that I think it’ll set my hair on fire.” Each character here is, in their own way small and broken, and yet it’s through small shared moments between them like when Erik comforts Aimee over losing “someone with history,” or when Richard chases after Brigid and they embrace on the roof together overlooking the New York skyline that I too felt my hair beginning to smoke.

The Humans is a funny movie while completely avoiding the holiday comedy tropes that tend to bleed the genre dry. A lot of the comedy comes not from slapstick but from the way the Blake’s continually uplift and undercut each other in equal measure. It gets to a point where the dread of what someone might say next becomes more powerful than the thuds and bangs of the creaky apartment and its phantom neighbor that may or may not be causing said sounds. They inadvertently hurt feelings, throw out thoughtless micro aggressions, and ignore what’s being said so they can appear right; all of this brought to life by a wonderful cast that play to each other’s strengths. There isn’t a sour note between any of them, each hitting their beats like established musicians more than actors. The performances here are top notch, some of the best seen this year and they go a long way in helping ignore some of the faults The Humans carry.

While the bare bones nature of the film gives it a much more direct connection to the play, it also doesn’t do it many favors. Some areas of the film feel a bit like a drag like in the beginning when we’re just starting to get to know everyone. Some of its visual language is very on the nose, and its contrasting colors of orange and blue (with a foreboding green thrown in for good measure) seems far too heavy handed in visually conveying the dynamics of this family. When the dialogue gets overwrought and fake-deep, it feels as though it can be stifling despite its better intentions. While the horror aspects of the film are well played, it becomes a bit telegraphed towards the second half, robbing it of its intended effect from time to time. These are minor issues ultimately, but over its nearly two-hour runtime they begin to add up and the repetition of its quiet-jump scare-quiet can be a bit exhausting, like a family member overstaying their welcome.

Still, the last few minutes of the film when it reaches the apex of its horror is one of the best sequences of the year, followed up with a deeply empathic ending that, while a little corny feels appropriate for the long night we’ve gone through. Circling back to House of Leaves, there’s an anecdote by author Mark Z. Danielewski in a profile by Eric Wittmershaus when referring to the genre of his novel which works perfectly here; “I had one woman come up to me in a bookstore and say, ‘You know, everyone told me it was a horror book, but when I finished it, I realized it was a love story.’ And she’s absolutely right. In some ways, genre is a marketing tool.” The Humans isn’t a horror film any more than it is a comedy, melodrama or holiday film; it’s a tragic romance filled with so much love and heartbreak for the living and the ways we continue to be there for one another, even if only for one day out of the year. 

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