A warning, to be issued immediately and upfront: You might not want to see The Humans directly before or after a holiday dinner. Should potential viewers still be suffering from PTSD regarding their Turkey Day get-together, or spend the bulk of their weekly therapy sessions dreading the thought of a Christmas spent in the company of relatives, this movie will be triggering. The filmmakers can not be held liable for any uncontrollable shaking, faintness of breath, numbness in extremities, loss of consciousness and/or bracing moments of clarity and recognition that are experienced while viewing playwright-turned-director Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his Pulitzer-nominated, Tony-winning drama. If you were lucky enough to catch any of the critically praised theatrical productions, then you know it’s a white-knuckle chronicle of the ties that bind and gag and strangle, of death by a thousand cutting remarks. The initial temptation when watching this tale of a young couple hosting a Thanksgiving meal in their tiny downtown New York apartment is to trot out the Tolstoy maxim about every family being dysfunctional in its own unique way. By the end, you may find yourself pivoting to the Jean-Paul Sartre quote about hell being other people. No exit, indeed.
But — and this is a 20-story-tall but — whether you catch it in theaters or view it on Showtime (where it is now streaming), you most definitely do need to see what Karam has done with his masterwork here. Had he simply pointed cameras at the cast he’s assembled — Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yeun are the couple; Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her role from the Broadway run, are the dad and mom of the Blake clan; Amy Schumer is the sister; and June Squibb is the grandmother in the throes of dementia — and let them speak his acid-tongued dialogue, it’d still be a testament to what a rewarding yet devastating drama it is. Every one of the performances is, to say the least, an example of what talented actors can bring to a piece of character-driven tragedy; there’s not a single weak link in this chain, while the collective chemistry suggests an instant history of affection, conflict, and shared cringing. A mere document for posterity would have been sufficient, if somewhat predictable.
Instead, Karam decided not just to open up his play but to employ an extreme, expressionistic, arthouse-cinema vocabulary in order to bring it to the screen. Shadows and negative space are everywhere, occasionally interrupted or complemented by geometric patterns of light. Frames-within-frames-within-frames shots abound. Compositions that place the ensemble in various areas of the foreground and background are cunning enough to make Ingmar Bergman envious. The occasional setup of people glimpsed through a tiny sliver of an open door or room-to-room view gives you the sense you’re eavesdropping on private conversations. Unable to employ the dollhouse view that characterized the theatrical version, the first-time filmmaker uses creeping cameras to move you around this cramped, two-floor flat in Chinatown, and claustrophobic close-ups to give you the feeling that you are trapped within this long, dark, passive-aggressive night of the soul right alongside them.
The basic narrative — a dinner, much sniping, some secrets, sheer anarchy released upon a sparsely furnished dining room — and much of the dialogue from the play has been imported, but this iteration of The Humans is, in so many ways, its own rough beast slouching toward post-turkey dessert. Onstage, you could see and hear the influence of Chekhov, O’Neill, and a half-dozen other scribes who’ve dived headfirst into the dangerous waters of family dynamics. Onscreen, the Rosetta stone seems to be the Criterion Channel. Karam has name-dropped Kieslowski, Fassbinder, and Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang as inspiring his way of reconstructing his visual sense of the material from the ground floor up, all of which sounds impossibly lofty until you see the unique way he’s copped some of their cinematic sensibilities. Rather than wear influences on his sleeve, the first-time director has fabricated a bespoke suit out of them — but it’s still his work. Karam has just used another language composed of others’ impeccable phrasings to translate his own singular, poetic voice into this medium. His visual storytelling instincts feel as pitch-perfect as his ear for the way blood relations use words to draw blood.
The Humans also owes a lot to horror filmmaking, notably of the Gotham-gothic variety, and viewers even glancingly familiar with New York real estate will feel a particular shudder going down their spines. Karam has called the movie a “family thriller,” which is a great way of boiling down the its waking-nightmare vibe into one spot-on description. (As for the film’s overwhelmingly inky look, you could best sum up Lol Crawley’s none-more-black cinematography as “kindly hold my beer, Gordon Willis.”) You might also call it a litmus test, and how you view the final shot says a lot about your outlook: It’s either a tiny figure enveloped by darkness or a person walking toward the last patch of light, in the spirit of hope and faith. Either way you glean it, you’ll know you’ve seen something scarring, enthralling, and indelible — and that its central concept, that family means always having to say you’re sorry, hits with all the impact of a stake through the heart.