The Humans' Impressive Cast Thrives in Dinner Table Horror/Drama

Movies Reviews Stephen Karam
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<i>The Humans</i>' Impressive Cast Thrives in Dinner Table Horror/Drama

There aren’t that many Thanksgiving movies—at least not compared to the onslaught of Christmas movies that are churned out, replayed and effectively remade annually. Thanksgiving, with its minimal decorations and uncinematic rituals of eating and sleeping, is more of a sitcom-episode holiday: Easy to dramatize (and… comedize?) by sticking a bunch of characters in a room together for a relatively short period of time.

That sort of describes the basic outline of The Humans, both the play by Stephen Karam and now the film that Karam has adapted from his own work. Six characters enter an unfurnished apartment, have Thanksgiving dinner, have some relatable laughs and arguments, and leave. But it lasts several times longer than 30 minutes of TV antics—and, at times, feels a little longer than its 108 minutes. (For Broadway, that practically is a 30-minute TV episode.) It’s not that Karam’s material is a slog. It’s more like a slow-acting trap, lulling the audience with familiar and familial conflicts as the walls start to close in.

It’s also less of a horror movie than any of that implies, and a little more of a horror movie than most family dramas. Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun) are having Brigid’s family over to their new Manhattan apartment—creaky, leaky, but, hey, pre-war and a lot of space. (The dual-floor set-up plays more like a potential luxury in a movie; on stage, it looks smaller.) The lack of décor, holiday or otherwise, becomes itself a creepy mise-en-scène as Brigid’s dad Erik (Richard Jenkins) runs his hands over the walls that’s odd swells and bends start to resemble scar tissue. Erik looks a bit more distractedly haunted than his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, the only cast member to reprise her role from the Broadway production—and better known to some audiences as a crabby tenant on Only Murders in the Building), but she has plenty of time to wander around the halls and catch scary reflections in mirrors as she looks after her ailing mother-in-law (June Squibb). Aimee (Amy Schumer), meanwhile, keeps retreating to the bathroom, partially to deal with a medical issue and partially to torture herself by scrolling Instagram for pictures of an ex-girlfriend.

Karam has assembled a starrier cast for his movie version, but The Humans isn’t being self-consciously scrubbed up with bigger names, the way that August: Osage County was in its own movie adaptation. Karam has a terrific ear for the realistic and, as such, calls upon his cast to do a lot of near-invisible acting—to make conversational slights, family in-jokes and half-overheard murmurs sound as true as possible. Simply put, everyone succeeds. Familiar faces cohere into a convincing family: The cranky piety of Jenkins and Houdyshell, Feldstein’s sweet-voiced yet embarrassed condescension, and Schumer’s dry-witted resignation masking genuine panic are all perfectly judged. Yeun has the least substantial, most thankless role (besides Squibb’s frequently sleeping Momo) and he plays the eager-to-please, slightly oblivious boyfriend perfectly.

The biggest change the material has undergone in translation is Karam’s ability to—as the caricatured version of a theatrical artiste would say—really explore the space. On stage, The Humans builds tension via the sound design echoing outward; for the film, Karam zooms in. With a camera, he can frame his actors in the slivers of doorways and shards of mirrors; enhance the claustrophobia of the apartment hallways; and emphasize the moving shadows that convince Erik he can see figures just outside the windows. Occasionally, the first-time director goes a little overboard with his newfound access to visual abstraction; the multiple shots of blurry portentous nothings are, like that caricatured artiste, a bit much. More often, though, Karam appears to be turning his show inside-out, leaving most of the dialogue and story intact while exposing more of its pre-war guts.

As the holiday wears on, cracks in the family are exposed in ways that feel more inevitable than predictable, suffused as these scenes are with both rueful humor and genuine dread. Karam packs a lot in (9/11 has a cameo), but the claustrophobia works in his favor; how much overreach can happen in a movie confined to a single apartment building? The cast makes that confinement by turns pleasant and uncomfortable, sometimes within a single conversation. On film, The Humans is more Thanksgiving-appropriate than ever. No preludes, no gifts, no tinsel. Just you and your family—or, worse, you and yourself.

Director: Stephen Karam
Writer: Stephen Karam
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Jayne Houdyshell, June Squibb
Release Date: November 24, 2021

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.