The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
You're Next

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article As many critics have noted, Adam Wingard‘s You’re Next has clear roots in the mumblecore movement, a strand of American Independent cinema associated with naturalistic rhythms, low-key digital aesthetics, semi-improvised dialogue, languid pacing, and loosely-plotted character studies focusing on the relationships of privileged, urban twenty-and-early-thirty-somethings, typically stuck in a state of arrested development and struggling with feelings of dissatisfaction and aloofness.

The movement has come a long way since its humble origins in the early 2000s. Many established mumblecore filmmakers have since integrated its formal and thematic characteristics into mainstream features such as Cyrus (2010), Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011), Your Sister’s Sister (2011) and, most recently, Drinking Buddies (2013). These films, aimed at a broader audience, have greater budgets, glossier shooting styles, more high profile actors, and neater plotting than is traditionally expected from a mumblecore film. Other filmmakers have, in recent years, experimented with combining mumblecore strategies with tropes of established genres. Two notable examples of this hybrid practice include Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather (2010) and Jay and Mark Duplass’ Baghead (2008). Both of these films start out like typical placid mumblecore productions, then, after approximately half an hour, take turns into relatively high-concept genre territory-thriller and horror, respectively.

However, despite this movement away from the original mumblecore aesthetic, in both of these features the primary focus remains firmly on exploring their characters’ struggles to navigate familial and/or romantic relationships, and they both dedicate an unusually large amount of time to the trivial interactions between the characters, using the seemingly banal to illuminate larger truths about them-which is, essentially, the primary aim of mumblecore. Although they do, at times, indulge in the traditional pleasures of their respective genres, each uses their genre plot primarily as a catalyst to bring out tensions between the characters.

Cold Weather, for example, is less interested in solving the mystery of Doug’s (Cris Lankenau) ex-girlfriend’s (Robyn Rikoon) disappearance than on exploring the reconciliation of Doug (a directionless burn-out who has recently dropped out of college) with his semi-estranged sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) as they play detective. The unravelling of the plot is treated with less significance than the minor interplay between the characters as they wait in their car during a stake-out, or scour a porn site in search of clues. The abrupt cut-to-black ending provides a satisfying resolution to the character layer of the film but not its plot layer (it will certainly frustrate any viewer anticipating an explanation to the central mystery), highlighting where the filmmakers’ interests truly lie.

Baghead operates in a similar manner. The film is built around a love square: insecure Chad (Steve Zissis) has a crush on Michelle (Greta Gerwig), who is more interested in Chad’s best friend, the charismatic Matt (Ross Partridge), who is in a struggling long-term relationship with Catherine (Elise Muller). This is a pretty conventional mumblecore set-up, and the opening half hour of the film, which details the friends planning their trip and then spending their first night in an isolated cabin, explores these issues in a characteristically subtle, low-key manner, with conflicts gradually being expressed through small glances, asides and back-handed compliments. When the horror notes are added to the mix, they serve to intensify these simmering tensions. For example, after Michelle sees the titular baghead creature briefly lurking outside her bedroom, she immediately accuses Catherine of trying to scare her out of spite and confronts her about it, resulting in an argument which brings to the surface many deep-rooted hostilities between them. As in Cold Weather, such interactions serve as the main concern of the film.

At first glance, it seems as if You’re Next may fall into a similar mould. Like Baghead, Wingard‘s film smartly blends mumblecore aesthetics with those of “shakycam” horror. The film focuses on a group of well-off young people staying in a luxurious, isolated building in the middle of the woods (owned by wealthy elder relatives), bringing with them a long history of resentments and hang-ups, and its first half hour takes the form (at least on a superficial level) of a conventional mumblecore production.

Additionally, the characters in You’re Next are based on typical mumblecore types: Crispian (A.J. Bowen) is a schlumpy academic who has recently left his wife for a much younger college student, Erin (Sharni Vinson). He bumps heads with his attention-seeking alpha male brother Drake (Joe Swanberg), who incessantly picks on him. Along with them are Felix (Nicholas Tucci), introducing the clan to his sardonic goth girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn), spoiled daddy’s-girl Aimee (Amy Seimetz), and pretentious documentary filmmaker Tariq (Ti West). If this were a regular mumblecore/genre hybrid, these personal conflicts would form the focus and substance of the film, and the majority of the on-screen action would be devoted to watching the suppressed familial tensions hinted at in the first act being brought to the surface by the archetypal “home invasion” plot. But this isn’t what happens.

What primarily separates You’re Next from Baghead is its treatment of its characters. In both films, they are self-involved, petty, emotionally immature, caustic, and navel-gazing. However, in Baghead, they are also naturally funny, eccentric, charming, playful and, in several moments, also display tangible undercurrents of vulnerability, melancholy, and longing. Though the film does lightly criticize them for their flaws, their positive traits ultimately enable the audience to like the characters and be invested in their minor struggles-they are designed to be sympathetic and relatable. You’re Next, on the other hand, heightens these faults to noxious levels (with the notable exception of Erin, who will be addressed later). While the characters in Baghead are slightly objectionable yet endearing in their childishness, the characters of You’re Next are childlike only in their all-encompassing narcissism, abrasiveness and stubbornness, rendering them unlikeable to the point of estranging the audience.

You’re Next makes two significant narrative decisions that further work to inhibit audience sympathy. The first is the early revelation that the central family’s wealth is a result of their father’s war profiteering, which immediately casts the characters’ privileged status (which usually goes uncommented upon in mumblecore films, as many of the movement’s detractors have pointed out) in a sinister light, especially when coupled with Crispian’s flippant, jokey attitude towards the fact (“do you mind having dinner with fascists?” he laughs). Secondly, the brief opening scene places the characters’ trivial concerns into stark context. With the double-murder hanging over the first act, we have no choice but to view Crispian’s irritation at his brother sucking up to their parents or self-proclaimed intellectual Tariq’s disapproval of Drake’s zealous love of advertisements as being anything but comically petty. The bickering into which the dinner table conversation quickly devolves is supposed to be viewed as pathetically juvenile rather than asking for genuine engagement, as the characters scream over-the-top accusations like “you’re so jealous of me, you’ve always been jealous of me” at each other, in a bundle of barely discernible overlapping voices.

In Baghead, the characters’ reactions to the dramatic circumstances in which they find themselves is believably human and recognisable. They are designed to act just as “regular people” would if placed in such a situation: confused, awkward, clumsy, irritable and, for the most part, logical in their decision-making. Though it takes the basic form of a slasher film, most of the genre’s unconvincing clichés are avoided (there is no impossibly tough “Final Girl” or ridiculously ineffective authority figure, for example). The result is a situation that feels more everyday than traditional horror pieces in which a viewer could easily imagine finding themselves. Even when genre notes are added, Baghead is always in line with mumblecore’s chief concern with naturalist representation.

In contrast, when the characters of You’re Next are attacked by a group of masked assailants, their behaviour becomes almost farcical. When the first arrow flies into the house, hitting Tariq in the forehead, the rest of the characters are, unbelievably, too caught up in their argument to even notice for several moments. There is the sense that if they were able to put aside their small differences and worked together, they could come up with a feasible survival plan, but are instead stunted by their own inability to cope with practical situations, with their touchiness and petulance at this point elevated to near-epic proportions. Still wrapped up in their personal problems, they frustratingly refuse to let go of their juvenile resentments and continue to squabble like kids. For example, when the clan are trying to decide which character should run out to look for help, Drake insists that he is the fastest, but can’t run because he has an arrow in his back, to which Crispian retorts “what does your shoulder have to do with your legs?”, which leads Drake-"unable to resist taking a pot-shot at his brother even while at risk of bleeding to death-"to mock Crispian’s lack of experience with physical exercise. The pair then starts arguing hysterically, delaying action even further. Aimee, similarly finding a way to make the incident entirely about herself, soon breaks down crying and whines, “I could run but you never give me credit for anything. You don’t believe in me!” The other characters eventually give in and let her go, a decision which ends up killing her. The audience are asked to look down on the characters, and when they start to die, the viewer is left with the feeling that they, to a certain extent, brought it on themselves. From here, You’re Next gradually sheds all aspirations to naturalism altogether, instead embracing horror clichés as the action grows increasingly, intentionally, absurd. It's clear that You’re Next utilizes elements of the mumblecore aesthetic not to convincingly evoke a sense of realism, but to highlight the poisonous undertones of the milieu associated with the movement.

Although Baghead doesn’t force its subjects through large, convoluted character arcs (there are no big speeches or grand epiphanies in sight), and they don’t become totally “fixed” by the film’s end, the characters do gradually grow into more mature, responsible, morally-conscious people capable of honest self-reflection over the course of the action (even if this is only expressed in minor ways). The characters of You’re Next, however, display no such inner growth; those who are not killed as a result of their own ineffectuality (that is to say Crispian, Felix, and Zee) simply go down a self-destructive spiral of egotism, entitlement, greed, and misanthropy. Their behaviour grows increasingly heartless, ramped up to an almost cartoonishly evil level by a mid-point twist that reveals the three to be behind the attack purely as a means to obtain their parents’ insurance money.

At the end of the film, Crispian, the last living member of his family and sole heir to their fortune (he shrugs off the news that his co-conspirators have been killed with a simple “OK”), remorselessly tries to persuade Erin not to turn him in to the cops by offering a simple proposition: “I could give you $500,000 within the month, or I go to jail, and you get nothing.” This is the distillation of his attitude towards life totally devoid of any sense of morality or social conscience and solely concerned with personal gain. While the worldview of conventional mumblecore is generously humanistic, You’re Next is unrelentingly cynical in its portrayal of its bourgeois characters.

Which brings us to Erin. Practical, working-class, unselfish, self-made, active, resourceful, level-headed and outward-looking, she is pretty much the antithesis of a regular mumblecore character, and, tellingly, the only positive audience identification figure. While the other characters decline on account of their character traits, she is gradually elevated to a near-mythical heroine status.

You’re Next, ultimately, has less in common with traditional mumblecore than recent features such as The Comedy (2012) and The Color Wheel (2011), films that similarly employ certain aspects of the mumblecore style in order to produce a much harsher critique of its milieu. The degree to which each film succeeds in this aim varies (as I mentioned in my short review, the satirical approach of You’re Next is too broadly drawn and heavy-handed to leave much of a lasting impact), but together they suggest that the form is being taken in new, intriguing directions.

This Alternate Take was published on November 02, 2013.

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