‘The Humans’ movie review: Unsaid words and hidden emotions; a true-blue American horror film

An adaptation of a play by the same name, Stephen Karam’s directorial debut is a family drama that warps into an anxiety attack of sorts and lingers on in our minds

An adaptation of a play by the same name, Stephen Karam’s directorial debut is a family drama that warps into an anxiety attack of sorts and lingers on in our minds

The Humans is a movie that will have you Googling for its “ending explained” after you close the streaming platform tab. The top reviews on Letterboxd are not going to help either.

An adaptation of a play by the same name, Stephen Karam’s directorial debut film opens on Thanksgiving Day, as Erik (Richard Jenkins) along with his severely-ill mother, Momo (June Squibb), and wife, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) visit their daughter, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein), in her lower Manhattan apartment that she shares with her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun). They are also joined by Brigid’s younger sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) who is a lawyer in Philadelphia. 

Stephen doesn’t bother to make the audience feel comfortable, and this sense of discomfort stems primarily from the camera’s movement which is far from conventional. For the most part, the camera is stationary and the actors are seen spilling in and out of the frame. We are used to the camera framing the actors and dictating movement, but Stephen steps aside from this convention completely, making the audience feel like voyeurs and succeeding in keeping them uneasy throughout.

Erik and Deirdre share the discomfort of the audience when they are exposed to unusual loud noises in the building… which Brigid attributes to her neighbour. However, the creaks in the walls, leaking steam pipes, and eerie narrow passageways dissuade the audience from believing Brigid.

The Humans

Director: Stephen Karam

Cast: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb

Runtime: 107 minutes

Storyline: Erik Blake gathers three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the family’s fears are laid bare

Not knowing the layout of the apartment and exploring it only when the camera moves, adds to the mystique, and in doing so, the apartment becomes a character reminiscent of the house in Mother! We are only let into the rooms when characters part ways in twos or threes to have hushed discussions about topics that weigh large over their lives, and the actors’ anxious body language throughout is indicative of impending doom. Unsaid words and hidden emotions start to weigh the environment down as the sun sets. Erik chugging a bottle of beer further pushes everyone’s emotional boundaries when he starts to talk about his regrets. They pull at each other’s heartstrings throughout the dinner and long-hidden resentments start to make their presence felt in the room. 

As the director says in this interview with The Hindu, The Humans is a genre collision. What starts out as a regular family comedy soon warps into a psychological thriller that concludes with the unravelling of their respective selves. One cannot help but draw comparisons with Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, another family drama that warps into an anxiety attack of sorts.

The Humans is also an astute commentary on the urban life of a middle-class American, and a life spent living in dingy apartments with the emotional vestiges of a city. This is especially highlighted when Erik recounts the events of 9/11 as he remembers them; memories that haunt him like faceless ghosts even after two decades.

Deirdre is the maternal figure disappointed with her children’s indifference to Christianity. Aimee, whose legal career is stagnant due to her health problems, is dealing with heartbreak and has to reconcile with the idea of living the rest of her life alone. All this while Momo sits in her wheelchair making sounds and muttering incoherent phrases to herself. Richard is recovering from his depression, while Brigid is forced to take up yet another humiliating job as she is not awarded the grants to pursue her dream musical career. The entire Blake household, over the course of the meal, is at once made to confront all their disappointments; a true-blue American horror film.

While the atmosphere of discomfort manages to hold the audience in the beginning, its grip loosens eventually despite an intrepid attempt at reeling us back in with the climax. Still, Stephen Karam’s debut lingers in the mind once you are done spending 107 minutes in the lower Manhattan apartment; for better or worse.

The Humans is currently streaming on MUBI

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