Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?
Tortured souls and afflicted minds expressed through a space; the dilapidated building trapped in a frozen state of eternal torment while peering up achingly towards the sunlit heavens. A hazy purgatory, existing in a non corporeal space, distant and detached from the urban chaos of city streets. The windows, caked in aging dust and slowly drifting from clarity, provide only a blurry impression of the world outside, and the rusting iron bars affixed to the brick outside only add to the oppressing and imprisoning atmosphere. The paint on the walls is cracked and weathered, the pipes creak from their eternal burden, and the fixtures shake loosely in an attempt to break free from their chains. Within the crumbling walls of the ruined building a family gathers, following familiar procedure to hit the preordained notes of long standing tradition.
The densely psychological Thanksgiving dinner depicted in Stephen Karam’s The Humans is difficult to parse out but constantly beguiling, the family of six entering a pre-war New York apartment that feels as though it’s still suffering from the past it lived through, devoid of everyday comforts but abundant with intrusive rusted parts and lacking a cathartic openness, its constricting lines constantly framed to a cold isolation, preventing the expected togetherness of its warm holiday setting. The claustrophobic imposition of the structure keeps the characters at an agonizingly precise distance, always seemingly just out of reach, but each interaction evokes the familiar air of a conversational artifice only found during these annual holiday congregations.
While young couple Richard (Steven Yeun) and Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) beam with accomplished pride at their run-down new living quarters, her parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) stare with uncomfortable apprehension, Erik weighed with an unwavering anxiety that has plagued his existence since his experiences on 9/11. Though Erik’s permeating fears are the most readily apparent as he repeatedly voices his desire for his children to move away from the impending apocalyptic atmosphere of the big city, there’s a constant undercurrent of pained humanism that reverberates through the home, the film representative of a resonant and collective American condition.
The whole family suffers from their own individual burdens that all feel chillingly familiar in their own way, a fractured psyche split into a generational divide, reflective of a constant inability to escape something unspeakably predetermined. Eldest daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) struggles with a litany of problems readily representative of American systemic failure, her unavoidable medical conditions causing irreparable harm to her career prospects, her absences failing to meet the capital driven standard of her employer. Brigid suffers a similar fate, clearly imbued with an idealism that repeatedly tells children to pursue their passion at all costs while offering little support, only to suggest an insufferable and unlivable retail job as consolation for your efforts. The buried pain within each of them crafts a vicious cyclone, Erik projecting his insecurities onto his children and Deirdre desperately trying to connect, a latent overbearing pressure that builds within Aimee and Brigid until they lash out reactively.
Emblematic and starkly representative of the harsh emotions brought to the surface during the most innocuous of family gatherings, the underwritten anxieties and fears that are constantly threaded through the dialogue are achingly familiar, but the film makes a point to keep returning to a familial warmth that persists despite the frustration and pain. They find comfort in each other’s presence and in their traditions, cathartically smashing an ornate peppermint pig while they share the things in life they’ve found to appreciate.
It bleeds with an unwavering existential dread, but labeling The Humans as horror feels disingenuous, setting an expectation the film isn’t quite trying to meet. Karam spends the film externalizing so much of our repressed apprehension and discomfort, putting to screen an everyday sense of foreboding danger that’s not so much rooted in horror as it is in an overwhelming humanism. The pain, fear, and guilt that runs deep within us all, building slowly until a decisive moment forces us to either recede into ourselves, trapped in the darkness, or to sprint full force into a freeing, open catharsis, allowing others into our warm embrace so we can finally look toward the lingering pain we all share, and help each other through it.