The Humans begins with an establishing shot, the camera gazing up from the small interior courtyard of a Chinatown apartment building.
It’s one of those New York areas so claustrophobic that the idea of it being “outdoor space” is a tease. Craning to glimpse a sliver of the sky, it almost seems unreachable, creating an illusion that the surrounding brick walls are starting to cave in on you the harder you struggle to look. Something matter-of-fact shouldn’t seem so impossible, yet from the bottom of the courtyard looking up, it’s an existence from which you may never escape.
Before vertigo sets in, we move inside to the pre-war apartment that young couple Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun) are moving into that day, which also happens to be Thanksgiving. Heading indoors only intensifies the unease.
The walls are blistered with constellations of bulbous sores, almost like an infection, where water damage has ruined the paint. Lights flicker when they stay on at all, illuminating precariously from fixtures that appear as if they might plunge from the ceiling at any moment—making harrowing darkness, whether purposeful or not, the de facto ambience. Then there are the sounds.
The kind of loud crashes that stop your heart cold boom incessantly from the upstairs neighbor, who is doing God knows what—Brigid and Richard are too polite to inquire. There’s also the moaning, creaks and groans that veer either mechanical or supernatural, depending on your psychological state, and are seemingly sourceless. The elevator? The laundry? The broiler? A ghost? The lady upstairs? The faceless shadows dancing through the frosted glass of the other windows in the courtyard—which is to say, a ghost?
The Humans is directed and written by Stephen Karam, adapted from his own Tony Award-winning play, which happens to perhaps be the best-reviewed new play in a decade.
If all you know of it is that it centers around the family that assembles to help Brigid and Richard with the Thanksgiving move, there are elements of its topicality and the way their dynamics reflect the cultural discourse that you’d expect. Unexpected, and a boon for this cinematic leap from the stage, is that The Humans would also be the most pulse-racing horror film of the year.
That’s metaphorical and literal, and perhaps in some ways it never intended to be. It opened Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, and, at a recent screening, several critics commiserated over how deep into their seats they were forced to burrow as the film stalked and itched its way through its running time, hands so whiteknuckled to armrests by the end that, had it actually been a creature-feature with a grand finale jump scare, seats might have been ripped out of the floor.
That intensity is a credit to the atmosphere Karam infused into his screen translation, a foreboding sense that there are harrowing circumstances one can’t escape from or even wish away with complacence and acceptance. A concerning noise, a leak, a blown-out bulb: Something else will always be lurking around the corner. But all of that circulates a script and characters that prove to be a searing example of the ways in which the practical circumstances of life, family, class, and existence are just as haunting.
Erik and Deirdre Blake (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her Tony-winning role) drive into the big city from Scranton to celebrate Thanksgiving with Brigid, their daughter, and help with the move. Brigid’s sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) has come up from Philly to pitch in, and Erik and Deirdre have brought the family’s Momo (June Squibb), who suffers from dementia and is having a “bad day.”
Between Momo’s outbursts, the fact that navigating her wheelchair through the narrow halls of the apartment only further illustrates how living in New York City is absolute hell, the constant noises making the family question whether Brigid and Richard are making a mistake (and Brigid and Richard in turn doubling down on their enthusiasm for the space), and the inconvenience that the moving truck is delayed with the furniture and no one has any unpacking to do...well, the claustrophobia intensifies. More than a family holiday gathering would be already, Thanksgiving becomes a powder keg for the Blakes’ issues to spark and explode.
The brilliance in all of this is its realism. Yes, The Humans is based on a play and takes place all on one set, but it never feels overly theatrical. The conversations between the family unfold as they naturally would, each one excavating another layer of trauma, resentment, and pain—not so much for each other, even, as for the immovable forces limiting their lives.
At first it seems like the Blakes are in a haunted house and things that go bump in the night are at work extracting drama and revelations. But the more specific the family’s issues get, the more evident it becomes that there is no supernatural meddling or puppet strings. The emotional exorcism is a product of everyday life’s annoyances, of decades of intimate relationship with family, and of exasperation with, simply, the way things are. Of being humans.
You learn, for example, that Brigid isn’t a bratty kid who bickers with her mother when, inevitably, every family-gathering taboo comes up at the dinner table: religion, money, politics, marriage. She’s drowning under a flood of student debt that she can’t swim out of no matter how hard she works, because she had believed the false promise of an expensive education, the specialness of talent (she’s an aspiring composer), and the pursuit of passion.
Aimee is a lawyer reeling from a breakup with her girlfriend, and also just learned she was taken off her firm’s partner track because she missed too much time dealing with her ulcerative colitis.
Deirdre laments that she’s been working as an office manager for decades, but now must answer to twenty-something bosses who make twice as much money as her.
And Erik, who took a job as a custodian at a private school so that he could get his daughters free tuition, is visibly distressed, talking around what should be the family’s most exciting conversation topic—after so much hard work, he and Deirdre are getting a lake house—and hiding a crippling secret of his own.
These are people whose souls are so intertwined they don’t realize when they’re being intrusive, or insecure, or inappropriate. They also, for the most part, generally seem to be having a great time, as families do on holidays even as unrest fleetingly boils over.
Deirdre is a woman of faith and bottomless empathy, desperate to be seen with dignity from daughters who write her off as a joke. Erik is a man exhausted, facing down the end of the tunnel and unsure whether to be despondent that things never got more exciting or smug about it—this is the lot in life he knew would be inevitable.
It’s a towering performance from Jenkins, with Houdyshell delivering, in contrast, a matriarch so lived-in and familiar—so human—that the film couldn’t work without her. Schumer also proves to be a casting stroke of genius. Aimee’s self-deprecating humor punctuates the script with levity—don’t be fooled, The Humans is deceptively hilarious—but Schumer also grasps the heavy weight of malaise that so many millennials shoulder, a quiet undercurrent of depression that grounds so much of the family drama.
The Humans first opened off-Broadway in 2015 before a Broadway transfer a year later. Then, it was a portrait of an average American family at a time in crisis, or perhaps, at least, a turning point for the idea of the American dream and how the canyons that have developed on the path to it have seismically transformed what it means to exist in this country. You could look at it nihilistically, as a story about resignation and bleak futures. Or, perhaps, of stoic persistence in the face of static mobility. The act of soldiering on.
The material’s resonance has only sharpened in recent years, piercing like a dagger into a societal cloud of anxiety, narcissism, welfare warfare, uncertainty, and persistent unrest. It raises questions about who gets to reboot their lives, validate their despair, grieve, nurse wounds, or take the time to address issues like their mental and physical health.
Even the ones who have the slight advantage don’t realize it, like Richard, who fits in seamlessly with the Blakes, but was afforded the opportunity to reset and deal with depression in his 30s—a privilege the Blakes have been so routinely denied that they’re too numb to resent him. It’s not a lack of opportunity that haunts each of them. It’s their own mortality.
That’s why it’s so fascinating to emerge from The Humans feeling like you’ve watched a horror film, which the project may never have intended to be characterized as. What is more unsettling and more unshakable in our current time, with these unsavory circumstances, than the idea of inevitability?