SXSW Film Review – Us and Them
Us and Them
Us and Them (2017) starts out seemingly as a biting satire about class warfare. You know the story: a person of low economic stature feeling like they got the short shrift out of life butting heads against a rich person who savors all the privileges of being in the top one percent. In times like these, this dynamic has played a major role in the public consciousness. The problem with writer/director Joe Martin’s crime/horror/thriller is that the satire doesn’t quite have the bite needed to nail the point down. In fact, as the narrative continued forward, I began to lose track over what Martin was saying, and started to focus more on how dour the characters really were. It’s not much fun watching bad people do bad things to other bad people.
That’s not to say that Martin has a lack of skill as a filmmaker. In fact, his style is arguably the film’s biggest strength. He tells the story of a lurid and violent home invasion with a keen sense of energy and pacing. Stefan Mitchell’s camera glides through scenes with smoothness. An early scene captures the assailants rummaging through a rich family’s belongings, and the movement of the camera (done in one unbroken shot) has a boldness that’s hard to ignore. The editing (also by Martin) jumps back and forth in time. With the home invasion as the central point, Martin circles back with flashbacks telling how each character ended up in their position in the present. The soundtrack has a nice blend of pop and rock tunes, and Martin pairs his selections to sequences with an ironic touch. All together, the finished product calls to mind the early work of a Guy Ritchie, if he were making a film written by Michael Haneke.
And that’s where the problems start to arise. The Haneke comparison comes because Us and Them reminded me of a similar home-invasion story: Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/2007). Just like in Funny Games, Us and Them tries to make a larger point about society with a family getting terrorized by brutal outsiders. And just like Funny Games, Us and Them delves into the aesthetics instead of the subtext. There’s more of a focus on the blunt force trauma on screen rather than what the meaning behind it is.
For example, Danny (Jack Roth) and his two partners (Andrew Tiernan, Daniel Kendrick) capture a rich family in the British countryside (Sophie Coquhoun, Tim Bentinck, Carolyn Backhouse) in an effort to make a statement about the evils of economic inequality. Danny convinces his mates to join in by spitting off some pseudo intellectual mumbo jumbo about “taking it to the man” and righting the wrongs of being beaten down by the upper class. When they have the family tied up, Danny saunters and poses in front of a video camera, spouting diatribes about the greater good and how the greedy upper class has it coming.
But in truth, Danny is a bully – a pathetic, insecure, scared little bully. He’s Tyler Durden with less charisma. Almost right away, we gather that Danny has no idea what he’s doing. He resolves himself to violent acts because deep down, even he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. In many ways, he’s exactly what he professes to hate: he doesn’t have the drive or persistence to achieve a better life, so instead he punishes those that have what he wants. Sure, there’s a little background given that helps explain his motivation, but not nearly enough to justify his actions. What’s even more upsetting: he may not be the craziest one amongst this bunch.
And that’s what makes Us and Them such a disappointment. It lacks anything humane for us to grab a hold to. Home invasion stories are really tricky to pull off. Seeing a group of people being tortured for entertainment’s sake is a slippery slope to climb. On the other side, there has to be something with the torturers to make us understand why they decided to do this to other people. The most revealing moment comes when Danny and the patriarch of the victimized family, Conrad (Bentinck) look at each other with disdainful eyes. Quickly, Martin flashes to a sequence where both Danny and Conrad are yelling at the camera, spitting out insults and epithets as a representation of what they think of the other person – something you would occasionally see in a Spike Lee film. This moment reveals to us that Danny and Conrad are both ugly characters, filled with hate and disgust for anyone other than themselves.
Joe Martin has all the capabilities of making a great film, one that is a blast to watch while also being sharp with its commentary. While Us and Them didn’t work for me in the end, there’s a lot of potential in this filmmaker, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he fulfilled that potential very very soon.