Thursday, August 22, 2013

'You're Next' (2013) directed by Adam Wingard

A pleasant looking middle-class family, the children all grown, is sitting down for their reunion dinner. The scene couldn't be more relaxed.  The lighting is low, the food looks good, the familial bonds seem strong - this is the very image of happy, peaceful normality.  So why am I sitting on the edge of my seat fervently hoping for the Dad's head to explode? Why am I filled with anticipation to see the boringly artistic ditzy couple be sliced up by machete wielding psychopaths?  You're Next does a disturbingly great job of making you like a bloodthirsty sadist - setting up a gaggle of annoyingly moronic characters and slowly feeding them one by one into a meat grinder.

The plot is streamlined to the point of genre parody.  The Davison family are having a family reunion to mark the parent's anniversary, invited are their three sons: Felix (Nicholas Tucci), Drake (Joe Swanberg) and Crispian (AJ Bowen), their daughter Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and their partners.  Our viewpoint is Erin (Sharni Vinson), the Australian girlfriend of the studious Crispian.  We immediately relate to her as she awkwardly meets her partner's family for the first time and quickly has to decipher the pecking order, identifying old conflicts, laughing at in-jokes you don't get and trying to be as helpful as possible.

These early scenes are exasperating.  The Davison's aren't overtly horrible but they are painfully bourgeois, vain, neurotic and generally pretty unlikeable.  But don't worry, there's a gang of psychopaths wearing animal masks on the way to liven things up a bit.  Very quickly the body count starts to rise as the family is picked off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways.  But soon we realise one person isn't acting like the rest.  Erin is smart, decisive, tactical and, as it turns out, pretty handy with a meat tenderising mallet.  

Yes it is a bit like Hotline Miami.
Within this familial morass of stupidity and ineptitude Erin shines out like a beacon of sanity.  Where everyone is losing her heads she's keeping hers.  She knows that going running off into the woods isn't going to solve anything and is preternaturally aware of what tactics they'll use to hunt them down.  As Erin's character develops into a scarily competent warrior, You're Next begins a parallel transformation from cliched horror to laugh-out-loud farce. Slowly, the film evolves from jump-scares and tension to a sublimely deadpan ridiculousness.  What began as a straightforward slasher ends up as a really twisted variant on Home Alone, as Erin improvises ever more elaborate and painful ways of dispatching her increasingly miserable pursuers.

An American middle-class family under attack from an anonymous, masked mob is pregnant with symbolic meaning.  In the hands of a conservative director you could easily make this setup a handjob for Republicans - a nightmare of armed men invading your home - the core right-wing fantasy of violent attack by the nebulous 'other'.  But Wingard goes the other way; in a throwaway line of dialogue he establishes that the father worked for a defence contractor, a son jokingly (though not entirely inaccurately) describing him as a "fascist". With a very light touch, Wingard is letting us know that true evil is embedded deep in the structure of this apparently normal family, the foundations of their fabulous house and lifestyle are sunk in blood.

Rather than fear the 'other', You're Next prods us to identify with it, embodied in the character of Erin.  She's set apart from the others by not only by nationality but also by her refusal to compromise and surrender.  Aside from everyone else being utterly moronic, Wingard uses a number of subtle cinematic tricks to get us to sympathise with her.  The movie has an absolutely kickin' synth soundtrack, like something John Carpenter forgot to write.  When Erin is on screen we get a badass bass beat that abruptly stops when we cut away from her.  Almost subconsciously we want her back on screen just to hear more of the great score.

You're Next also pays close attention to Chekhov's rule of the gun on the mantelpiece. In terms of action, much of the movie is a series of elaborate set-ups and payoffs.  Some things are more obviously set up than others, but that we can see disaster coming in advance just makes the grisly arrival of it that much more satisfying and, obviously, funnier.  As the tables gradually get turned, Wingard demythologises his villains; we go from being terrified of their omniscience to laughing in their faces as they blunder clumsily into yet another painful trap.

Perhaps the only slightly troubling factor is that the extremely dark sense of humour becomes a bit questionable at times.  Though they're pretty horrible characters, you end up feeling a bit guilty taking a sick pleasure in watching family members getting murdered in front of each other.  The acting in this film isn't going to win any Oscars, but the mother's grief at seeing one of her children slowly bleeding out is just on the right side of realistic to stray into actual horror. That said, one of the reasons You're Next works so well, is that the actual horror is all loaded into first half of the film, making for an effectively contrast with the sly grand guignol comedy of the second half.  

I was pleasantly surprised by You're Next.  The movie stays firmly within the constraints of the B-movie, yet within those constraints it behaves with an impressive intelligence, wit and dynamism that becomes more compelling by the minute.  Everything is constructed with an eye to toying with the audience's expectations, dragging us along for a ride that becomes increasingly and pleasantly comedic.  A cut above your average slasher film.


You're Next is on general release from 28 August

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