Stephen Karam takes his Tony-winning and Pulitzer Prize finalist play, The Humans, to the big screen with all the patience, dread, and claustrophobia attached to it. Including excellent sound design, phenomenal work by the cast, and horror-esque elements. Nevertheless, something is missing throughout the film that keeps it from having a more profound impact.
Last year we had quite a duo of directorial debuts based on plays, Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Florian Zeller’s The Father, winning two Academy Awards for Best Actor (Hopkins) and Adapted Screenplay. This year we have Stephen Karam, who wants to adapt his show, The Humans, to the big screen. Comparing the different stage to play adaptations that have been made recently, this slightly resembles Zeller’s work in a few ways. Both take part inside an apartment that is its own character, has an ensemble that changes their appearances in some fashion, and has a crawling feeling of anxiousness. You could hear the walls talk, literally; each room has the characters somewhat speak or express themselves in different manners. In one room, you are more vulnerable, while in the other, you are defensive, but it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.
Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre Blake (Jayne Houdyshell) have gathered three generations of their Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving in his daughter and her boyfriend’s, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), new apartment in lower Manhattan. As the night comes, sounds and rackets in the apartment, along with confusion, cause the guests of this “hellish” dinner to face their deepest fears. Just by reading the synopsis, you already know that there will be a lot of confrontations between the family members. Their doubts about relationships, aspirations, the future, and everything in between will be talked about with no restraints. Indeed, they will try to avoid such conversations, but you only have so little space in that cramped apartment without one crashing into something or bumping into someone. There are several scenes where one character is perturbed by something that isn’t seen on screen, or they collide with one another, which later leads to a conversation they didn’t want to have at that specific moment.
So, what does The Humans have in store? Dread, dread, and a whole lot of dread, with a side of the melancholic punch. And for dessert, you wouldn’t guess it… comedy. It begins with a couple of quiet seconds, and then out of the blue, a loud thump is heard, similar to Apichatpong’s Memoria (2021). Richard Jenkins’s Erik Blake is startled, shaken up due to the unexpected and roaring sound. Viewers should expect more moments like these. As the film goes on, the more sounds, stomps and thumps you are going to hear. These things make the movie feel horror-esque in its atmosphere and tone. Although the script by itself doesn’t garner the tension and anxiety of the confining apartment since it has lines that are meant to “alleviate” the pain, there is something in-between the mockish or comedic writing, there is a sense of foreboding. If it does comedy, it is pitch black. Every cast member has their lines of deep resounding gloom and funny jokes (like Richard and Erik’s dreams).
There is something fascinating about how Karam treats the location of The Humans. He sometimes takes the characters into the dark and crooked corridors of the building. And when he does that, the feeling of dread is even more consuming. It wants us, and them, to just go back to the flat because it is less haunting in there than outside. They prefer to be in that family dinner stuck with each other, despite the troubled times, because they don’t have anybody else to share their feelings with. They are the only people left for each other to talk to about their pains and discomforts. The multiple situations going on with each other have this Thanksgiving dinner feeling like an exhausting feast. Yet, they are all there for each other, even though the occasional insult is thrown and arguments are made. Amidst the conversations and the occasional “jump scares”, something still feels off, and it hurts the picture’s impact on its ending.
Some moments leave you scratching your head and not because of interest, but confusion. It is like a missing puzzle piece; the frame isn’t complete until you find it. Unfortunately, the piece isn’t found, and the audience is left with an inner aching of wanting those moments to be resolved, yet they aren’t. Nevertheless, there are still elements strong enough to elevate the film to good standing, thanks to its cast and script. All of them have their time to shine, and it is one strong ensemble that better each other as it transgresses. The couples in the film, Brigid and Richard, as well as Erik and Deirdre, parallel each other in terms of performance and their attitude in the relationship. Meanwhile, Amy Schumer surprised me a lot. The focus isn’t entirely on her, but she plays a big part in the structure of this picture.
The Humans has some thematic heft and packs a lot of dread in a time of unbalanced emotional status by the overall population, making it effective for most of its runtime. Some moments drag, and other scenes do feel like they could have been cut, but its dedicated cast and Karam’s direction, as well as writing, seem to be on the right path tonally and structure-wise. With the talents shown in his directorial debut, I wish Karam would direct a straight-up horror flick as his subsequent work and see what he would come up with. Something at the same lane as A Tale of Two Sisters, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Witch could be an excellent fit. Anyway, whatever he decides as his next project, it will have my utmost attention.