Think of it as Home Invasion: Economic Anxiety Edition.
It’s virtually impossible to watch Us and Them, a 2017 UK indie which recently found its way to Netflix, and not think of Quentin Tarantino. Or Edgar Wright. Or Ben Wheatley. Or Guy Ritchie. Or even, if you want to really, really stretch it, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. This is a film which proudly wears its cinematic influences on its sleeves. So, yes, Tarantino flourishes abound, like non-linear storytelling, title cards, deceptively erudite speeches about pop culture, a killer soundtrack, swirling cameras, and sporadic split-screens. However, rather than serving this all up as an exercise in pure cinematic cool writer-director Joseph Martin aims for some 99% vs. 1% social commentary. Thus, Us and Them ultimately marries the bluntness of The Purge with the style of early Tarantino and registers as an intriguing “eat the rich” story in an era sadly overflowing with worthwhile targets.
The premise: a tense meet-the-parents dinner between a working class bloke named Danny (Jack Roth) and his posh girlfriend’s (Sophie Colquhoun) insanely rich folks (Tim Bentinck, Carolyn Backhouse) quickly turns into a home invasion thriller. Turns out, the boyfriend isn’t at all who he claimed to be, and the only reason the girl didn’t say anything is he had a gun. Danny and the two masked friends (Andrew Tiernan and Daniel Kendrick) he lets into the house mean to make an example out of this family, but what exactly that example is and whether it will go according to plan remains fuzzy for the entirety of the first act. Whatever they intend to do will be filmed and posted online, we know that much.
Once this basic set-up has been established and the rich people have all been tied to chairs the flashbacks begin, jumping around to tell us who exactly Danny is, why he’s doing this, and how his two friends got roped into helping him. They all three, we learn, come from impoverished and hopeless economic backgrounds, passed over by the march of progress, but only Danny seems motivated to do anything about it.
We do not, however, ever learn anything of substance about the hostages, other than the dad’s a banker and a total wanker. That’s because this is not a story of the rich and the poor hashing out their differences or finding a common ground. Instead, the focus rests on the implied “Us” in the title – the economic lower class with increasingly limited chances of upward mobility. What would draw them to such an act of domestic terrorism? And do they even agree on what their goal is?
It’s a similar sentiment found in various other recent films which have touched on economic anxiety and inequality. Money Monster, Jodie Foster’s overlooked 2016 thriller about a Jim Cramer-type getting his comeuppance on air, is the first to come to mind. There, Foster’s style and approach was classical Hollywood, a good ole revenge story where the little guy gets to point a gun at characters symbolizing the whole rotten system and ends up finding justice. Here, Joseph Martin throws as many bells and whistles at the screen as possible to compensate for the rather bleak worldview contained within.
For those sympathetic to its message, Us and Them rings as a cautionary tale of the potential hostilities down the road if things don’t change and fast. However, on balance the whole film has the feel of being yelled at about just how bad things are instead of being presented with characters worth empathisizing with. Martin’s prior work, the documentary Keep Quiet about a neo-Nazi Hungarian politician who converted to Judaism after learning his family was secretly Jewish on his mother’s side, was far more humanistic and concerned with healing the world. Us and Them just wants its pound of flesh. If not for Roth’s intense lead performance and Martin’s gift for escalating tension, it would probably be insufferable by the end. As is, it makes for an interesting, but flawed streaming option for thriller fans in the mood for something political.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
- There are at least three different films with the title Us and Them. If you Google it, you’re likely to see results for Rene Liu’s 2018 romantic dramedy Us and Them. So, just remember, this is the one directed by Joseph Martin.