You're Next, dir. Adam Wingard

TIFF 2011 Reviews

Tracking a sudden and inexplicable attack by masked assailants on a family reunion in an isolated country house, You're Next sounds on paper like a soulless retread of incredibly familiar ground. We follow rotund eternal post-doc Crispian Davison and his Australian ex-student/current lover Erin as they schlep up north to meet his wealthy family. The already disastrous dinner party on their arrival is only further ruined when men in animal masks attempt to massacre the guests with crossbows and machetes. (At this point a young man next to me leaned over and whispered, "It's her family! They're using AUSTRALIAN WEAPONRY!" No wonder Gallipoli went so poorly, with all the crossbows.) But Erin is – to the increasing discomfort of the killers – not quite so easy to kill as they might expect…

As I said, to read the outline is to think SSDD - Same Story, Different Day. Happily, this picture is – especially considering it's nominally a horror film – unbelievably refreshing in how much more work it puts in than most of its kind. For example, in the beginning we see and hear a couple making vigorous love through a window. Ah! we feel. We saw the Scream films, we get this, breaches in sexual propriety are punished by death most foul. But then as we zoom in, we see the older gentleman on top is doing most of the work, and we pan over his shoulder to a perfectly captured, very funny look of growing boredom on his young lover's face. She is appalled. He is taking forever. She cannot bring herself, however, to complain. The image instantly speaks to the whole dissapointing saga of their relationship and we're 30 seconds in from the opening credits. Suddenly a stock scene has some sort of emotional resonance – and the ensuing horrible fate of our mismatched inamorati is suddenly a horribly real violation of fully-realized people as opposed to a popcorn moment. (Not that, here and there in the film, a fist-pumping rattling "Yeah!" at a good kill didn't rip through the theater where I saw it.)

All throughout the movie, this tendency to complicate and shade the machinery of horror plotting with the comedy of sex and manners is an immense credit to the film's effect. In an unsettlingly beautiful image, a weary killer bludgeons a young woman to death – and then sits down to have a rest, looking about at the carnage he's wrought, letting us see his sudden incredulity at what he's done. A group trying to flee a deadly trap have a vicious sibling infight about who's the fastest runner that culminates in a crippling insult and a violent death. Something has been off for a while with pale, nervous, alcohol-free Mom – and it's nothing to do with the fact that someone unknown's been living in her abandoned room for days. Black comedy and thriller set pieces commingle and both are inflected with each other's energy – which itself only encourages us to see more of ourselves in these awful, squabbling people. How many of us have not wished for a catastrophe to excise us from at least one family affair? Here the Davisons learn to be very careful what they wish for.

The one non-killer and non-Davison present, Erin the Antipodean avenger presents another area where care and good artistic instincts make a silk purse out of a sow's archetype. She's no Neve Campbell or Jamie Lee Curtis, whose Action Girl credentials are a strain on suspension of disbelief, who goes from hapless shrieking to guerilla warfare in the film's last ten minutes. From the moment the threat is manifest, she takes charge by organizing defensive traps, pooling their resources, assessing the numbers and methodology of the attackers. In a supremely gratifying move, she also deflates every bit of typical horror movie idiocy thrown her way – "Don't go alone, they'll just kill you." "We're not going into the basement, they'll just pour down gasoline and ignite it." She has clearly been trained for just such an eventuality, and the sparing way that information about her past and capabilities is dealt out leaves us in the same position as the WASPs around her as they realize by degrees that this girl is very possibly more dangerous than their adversaries  and not all are comfortable with this sort of ruthless competence. (Or their resulting emasculation.)

In an inspired turnabout, as the movie goes on the previously invisible killers become occasional POV characters, and as we follow them through the mansion we suddenly realize that by horror movie logic she has become the monster – the killers are increasingly terrified and visible onscreen largely as a function of her increasingly ambiguous moral character and unsettling inscrutability. The film's title is agreeably open to interpretation at this point – rather than a steady winnowing down of the Forces of Good, it becomes a race between two opposing homicidal forces with one increasingly queasy household stuck in the middle. Erin is a tough, fully-clothed, smart and independent female protagonist – a fact which almost justifies the movie's social worth by itself. Her interactions with the Davison clan, their unknown enemies and a well-judged ratio of plot to twist by writer Simon Barrett further her appeal until her travails enter a sweet spot where they stand up to readings both as a feminist reclamation of agency from a weekend that was misogynist long before the quarrels came from crossbows, and as a gleefully twisted indulgence, a trip to hot-badass revenge fantasy heaven.

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