Stephen Karam has adapted his award-winning 2016 Broadway toneelstuk vir die bioskoop, en regie: die resultaat is soos 'n ekspressionistiese gruwel deur Polanski. In teorie, dit gaan oor 'n familiebyeenkoms vir 'n Thanksgiving-middagete, the sort of event that can usually be expected to bring about the phased disclosure of all the characters’ individual secrets and micro-tragedies. This feels more serious. These people look like the last group of humans left alive after some apocalyptic catastrophe, the remnants of homo sapiens being watched and examined at a distance by aliens. The grimly damp and undecorated duplex in which they have assembled could almost be a mass hallucination, triggered by a trauma worse than anything they’re talking about.
Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun) are a young couple who have put themselves under great financial strain to rent a place in Manhattan: this dark, dank, creepy apartment. Perhaps to brazen out whatever second thoughts they’re having, the couple have invited their extended family for a Thanksgiving lunch as a housewarming event, before they’ve had a chance to get it properly furnished. Brigid’s parents Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and Erik (Richard Jenkins) arrive with Erik’s mother Momo (June Squibb) in a wheelchair: she has dementia. Then there is Brigid’s sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) who is on her own after a breakup.
The pure, oppressive strangeness of the apartment makes it a seventh character: the spectre at the feast. Characters are always wandering off on their own into the gloom to have tense conversations in twos and threes, or jump at the unexplained thumps and bangs in the walls. It’s an ominous place, like Macbeth’s castle before the murder, and the collective unhappiness is dimming the lights.
Erik has a drink problem and accepts more beers from Richard than he really ought, and the booze loosens his tongue on the subject of how hurt he is that the children have abandoned their Christian faith and also their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania in favour of pricey New York. Deirdre is judging and critical. Brigid is a would-be composer who keeps failing to get grants and resents her dad for not helping out financially. She may yet have to take a humiliating job in a department store – an awful fate that is to echo the revelation that Erik is later to spring on everyone. Richard is recovering from depression and Aimee’s legal career is stagnant; she has health issues and is faced with living and dying alone. As for Momo, she murmurs and sometimes moans nonsense words, but is heart-rendingly mute while Deirdre reads aloud the emotional, loving email she wrote to her granddaughters while she was still lucid.
Karam and his cinematographer Lol Crawley will often record their conversations at a distance, as if they have these people under surveillance. Often, the camera will home in on the damp patches bubbling and cracking the walls, or the clanking old pipes along which weird echoey sounds travel. Sometimes a conversation will take place behind a fiercely detailed closeup of a pigeon feather on a window sill, which has been torn off by one of the anti-vermin spikes. The impending sense of doom and the uncanny takes The Humans beyond miserablism. Are these people sleepwalkers? Or is this all a dream or memory that one of them is having? Very real issues are suffused with an oppressive, unearthly, compelling unreality.