If you’ve seen Mr. Robot, this movie shouldn’t feel that weird to you. If you haven’t seen that wonderful TV series, you might wonder what the hell broke in Sam Esmail’s brain to conjure something this maximalist and genre-bending. And bleak. And weird. And isolating. But also quiet until it isn’t. A mix of techno-thriller, domestic melodrama and psychological horror. But not any of those things at once. It’s stylish in a way that will feel very familiar if you’ve seen his other work, with spiraling cameras, people framed oddly and some occasional shocks that may or may not be real. He is a very consistent filmmaker in his inconsistency.
There isn’t a whole lot to explain here. Our family, Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke), live in Brooklyn. Amanda is a high-level account director at an ad firm (a role with which I’m way too familiar), and pretty much hates humanity. A comment, I’m sure, on commercialism and commerce by Esmail. But she just decides out of the blue to pack up the husband and kids, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), for a weekend in The Hamptons. To perhaps escape that humanity she hears honking and screaming in the street. And presumably bugging her at work to sell their sodas and tennis shoes. I was kind of expecting a low-key rental house, but this thing is like a modern glass marvel. It couldn’t be any more different than the dark jewel box, overpacked hipster apartment that they leave. Hawke is a humanities professor. Because of course he is. The weed-smoking slacker.
They’re only there a short time before weird shit starts happening. A giant oil tanker grounds itself on the beach while they’re sitting there. And, even worse, the cable and the Wi-Fi at the house stops working! You see where this is going. Global technology collapse. Later that night the supposed owners of the house, G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), show up because of the tech outage. Or some such excuse. Amanda — who, remember, hates everyone — is skeptical of their ownership after G.H. is unable to produce I.D. and points to the fact that there are no photos of him or his daughter in the house. Clay, on the other hand, is welcoming. I think we’re supposed to assume Amanda is just being kind of racist and that perhaps Clay is also being kind of racist by trying his hardest not to be racist. Which, when you think about it, shouldn’t necessarily play into the fact these two people show up in the middle of a rainy night with lame excuses for their arrival and can’t produce any proof they actually live in this house. And you’re just supposed to let them in to stay over with your kids in the house? I think wariness is granted in this situation. I suppose if the Internet was working, they could Google the dude, but no tech means no proof.
This tension setup with these two families would be enough for some psychological horror movies to base their entire plot on. And for a minute you think this is going to be it. Who is this G.H. dude? And his pissy, femme-fatal-ish daughter? But it soon becomes a non-starter and G.H. is just who he says he is. At least I think he is. It’s a weird feint. But the true tension and horror here is the collapse of society as our tech infrastructure crumbles. Due to some unknown foreign (or maybe domestic) attack that is looking to undo the U.S. in stages. Isolate them from the technology that rules its life, which will cut off communication, transportation and entertainment and things will crumble quickly and precipitously. We see the effect of this attack on the two families as they become more and more isolated in their end-of-the-world glass house. The movie becomes more of a stage play, honestly, as we whittle away the cast down to its core six. Save the kind of dumb red state stand-in in the Kevin Bacon, contractor character. And the many CGI-generated animals who seem to have gone rogue now that they have the sense they’re back to ruling the world.
Ultimately this movie is kind of about your tolerance for Esmail’s world view. And his filmmaking. It can be talky-talky. The dialogue can be a bit stilted at times. It’s not naturalistic speech per se, but sometimes a little too highfalutin or just writerly to feel real. There are definitely some M. Night aspects to his style, where strange things happen for seemingly no other reason than to visually put you in a certain mood or make your soul judder a little. But instead of using the supernatural or the fantastical to this effect, Esmail usually grounds it in technology or something that symbolizes the nature of people in the modern world. Which is what happens in this film. That all said, there are some arresting visuals. The idea is a decent one. But the execution isn’t quite as solid as it could be. I’m not certain I ever buy Roberts and Hawke as a couple. Unless, like the rest of the film, this is a commentary on the alienation and breaking apart of the modern family. Because they feel pretty far apart, and I can’t really picture a time when they weren’t. Granted, Hawke’s character — the hippy professor — is obsessed and dependent on his technology. Which seems counter to the couple’s personalities. This joint-smoking humanities professor is a phone junkie? I don’t buy it. Her, on the other hand, I could see.
At the end of the film, I’m not really sure what we’re meant to think. We’ve pretty much abandoned any thought that something plainly weird is going on and that it’s isolated to these two families. And Esmail is clearly trying to tell a whole story and not just building for a sequel. Which I admire in this day and age. How he actually wraps it up will most likely be divisive. I liked it. It’s equal parts cute and clever. Too cute, some might say. But when we really look at what’s going on outside of their insular world, it’s out of their control. And everyone else’s. So Esmail giving at least one character their own controllable ending is weirdly satisfying. Even if the rest of it is a little hit or miss.