It’s not paranoia if the world really is being taken over by demons masquerading as humans. Unless it isn’t, is it? They Look Like People offers one possible answer.
Christian (Evan Dumouchel) and Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) are both hearing voices. For Christian, they’re encouraging words from the past that he listens to for comfort and motivation, but the words echoing in Wyatt’s ears bring no such solace. Calls arrive on his broken phone telling him that those around him are monsters disguised as people and that he’s the only one capable of seeing the truth. The voices warn him of an impending war where the remaining humans will be taken over and our species will face extinction.
The two old friends meet randomly one day in the city, and sensing that Wyatt is a bit lost at the moment Christian invites him to stay. Both men have recently exited long term relationships, and Christian is working up the courage to ask out his boss, Mara (the spunky and smart Margaret Ying Drake), as part of his ongoing efforts to re-brand himself as an improved version of the out of shape slacker he once was. As Wyatt and Christian reconnect over shared history they both face interior struggles they believe must be fought alone.
Movies featuring characters suffering from mental illness, especially ones of the thriller variety, usually do little beyond present a crazy person intent on harming those around him or her. It’s rare to find a genre film that takes the time to explore the human behind the madness while still providing thrills – 2013’s Enter the Dangerous Mind made an effort but was hampered by convention and creative limitations – but that’s just what writer/director (and editor, cinematographer, production designer) Perry Blackshear has accomplished with They Look Like People.
Wyatt is schizophrenic, but the voices make a more compelling argument to him than his doctors ever could, and the balancing act between the two sides is made visible by Andrews’ performance. He moves from being hopeful at rediscovering an old friend to being painfully resigned to Christian’s impending fate, and the growing threat he represents elevates to tragic levels. Wyatt isn’t evil, but the uncertainty he emanates makes him increasingly dangerous. Dumouchel has the less flashy role, but he creates (with the aid of Blackshear’s script) a human being who’s more than just the straight man to Wyatt’s “wacko.” His pain lacks demonic invaders and thoughts of paranoia-fueled murder, but self-doubt and loneliness are relatable feelings and make it even more engaging and poignant.
They’re strong individually, but the chemistry between the leads gives the film (and its ending) an affecting power. Too often genre films lose energy in the down time between scenes of violence or tension, but the friendship between the two men here feels real and creates a spirit and momentum of its own. They have sock wars and ghost battles between playful moments of banter and reflection, and when their respective madness and sadness come face to face there’s an emotional weight that stretches the film’s growing tension to its (and our) breaking point.
The character work and humanity impresses here, but thankfully Blackshear never lets the depth and heart get in the way of the creepy, terror-inducing bits. He offers up glimpses of the world Wyatt sees and uses shadows to maximum effect. The sounds of something shifting and changing just beyond the reach of the light unsettle Wyatt and viewers alike, but more than the visuals and auditory effects it’s his unpredictability that scares us the most. The people around him are on borrowed time – the strangers he aims his nail gun at, Mara who he invites down to the basement – and we tense up afraid of what he might do. The final ten minutes ratchet up the tension even further as the two pass a point of no return on their way toward an ending that, unlike far too many indies these days, reaches a definitive conclusion.
They Look Like People offers up two fragile souls, both suffering and under attack in their own way, and suggests that the most powerful defense in their arsenal is the love, friendship, and empathy they have for someone else. The film may look like a suspenseful thriller about a dangerously insane young man, but shimmering beneath the surface is a movie about the people we are, the people we want to be and the people who stay by our side along the way.
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