“So this is the basement. It’s for killing people or raping animals,” jokes Christian (Evan Dumouchel). “Why am I showing this to you?”
Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) has just arrived unexpectedly in New York, so Christian is giving his old schoolfriend a tour of the apartment, including the rooftop space and downstairs storeroom, which until recently, Christian had shared with his girlfriend Kat. If Christian is feeling lonely and a bit lost, so too is Wyatt, having recently been left by his long-term girlfriend (fiancée, even) Hannah. And so Christian welcomes Wyatt to stay with him in the apartment, and the two quickly become conspiratorial boys together again, playing childish indoor games, going on a disastrous double-date with Christian’s boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake) and her friend Sandy (Elena Greenlee), and gradually opening up to each other about their personal issues.
A long-term sufferer of low self-esteem, Christian has been trying to turn things around with regular gym visits, motivational tapes and attitudinal reorientations, and the result is a man who outwardly brims with can-do confidence, but remains fragile and frightened not far beneath the surface. In the previous year he had toyed with suicide, and sought professional help. Wyatt’s problems are more immediate and extreme, if perhaps even less visible. For he hears voices, sees things, and receives strange phone calls in the night which have convinced him that a demonic evil is infecting much of the world’s populace. Soon Wyatt has taken over Christian’s basement and is secretly preparing for the war that he believes is coming; a war in which he will have “to kill a monster that looks like a friend or a harmless innocent.”
In other words, Wyatt is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, Capgras delusion or some other psychiatric disorder, and needs help before he harms himself or somebody else. It is, however, important that writer-director Perry Blackshear (who is also DP, editor, producer and production designer) takes time and care to focus on Christian as well, and to draw parallels between the two friends, both sent into a spin by relationship breakups, both uncomfortable in their own skins, and both (mis)guided in their actions by disembodied voices. For much as Blackshear gives Wyatt’s subjective hallucinations an equal footing with the objective reality that they distort, he also presents Wyatt’s mental illness as occupying one space along a broader spectrum where each and every character has their place. When Wyatt asks, “Do you ever hear anything that’s not there?”, even grounded, tough-as-nails Mara responds with a story about the genetic neurological condition that makes her hear a choir in her head several times a week.
A displaced choir also makes up part of the film’s own disorienting soundscape, along with buzzing flies, crunching noises, and thunderclaps – all signifiers that we have entered Wyatt’s headspace. This is the world of Take Shelter (2011), Enter The Dangerous Mind (2013), and The Voices (2014) – a nightmarish warping that Wyatt is partially aware is illusory, but cannot, in his current state, dispel altogether. So he hides out in the basement, that locus of sublimated emotions and impulses, waiting and plotting how to fight the approaching darkness – until Chris, himself at a low point, decides to meet his friend halfway between fantasy and reality. This is where They Look Like People truly comes into its own, for down in the basement the film’s dual status as indie buddy movie and psychological horror converges into one. This climactic sequence, unbearably tense but also profoundly moving, takes friendship to its outer limits, while presenting the most alarming aspects of mental illness in the most sympathetic of lights.
In one sense the title They Look Like People obviously encapsulates Wyatt’s perception of a society from which he has become unhinged and which he regards quite literally as no longer human. Yet in another, it also gives expression to the ‘normal’ exterior that most of us, Wyatt and Christian included, present to the world, no matter what angst-ridden turmoil is roiling around down below in the hidden receptacles of our minds. All of which makes this a highly assured feature debut, rooted in sensitive characterisation and not a little audiovisual flair. With skill and imagination in multiple departments, Blackshear is indeed a filmmaker to watch very closely in future.
© Anton Bitel