Sunday, August 21, 2022

They/Them is one of the years most staggering misfires (SPOILER REVIEW)


Movies are complicated entities, but often, you can find one moment that distills why it does or doesn't work. For the horror film They/Them (written and directed by John Logan), which takes place at a gay conversion camp, that moment comes at the very end, when an army of police officers arrive just as the film's slasher baddie has been defeated. These figures show up as saviors (though it's never revealed how they knew something was askew at the camp) without a trace of irony. There is no recognition of the long history of cops tormenting queer people here, it's just a bog-standard heroic depiction of law enforcement. It's not the only baffling moment in They/Them, but it is a fitting microcosm of how this entire creative enterprise lacks personality or specificity.

They/Them takes place at Whistler Camp, a conversion camp that prides itself on being modern and less Bible-thumping than you might expect. However, they're still here to get people like non-binary teenager Jordan (Theo Germaine) or trans college student Alexandra (Quei Tann) to adhere to gender norms and throw away the idea of being queer. If you've seen But I'm a Cheerleader or The Miseducation of Cameron Post, then you know what these kids are in for. Lots of exercises reinforcing rigid and classical masculinity and feminity. But as the various counselors at this camp, led by Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon), try to "change" their queer attendees, a masked figure is picking off people.

Logan (who has an extensive history as a screenwriter, but have never directed anything before now) delivers a bizarrely half-hearted screenplay for They/Them, one that can't even seem to keep track of the personalities of its own characters. In the first act, Jordan remarks to Alexandra that they expected Whistler Camp to be more traditional and outwardly homophobic, but going a more "progressive" route frightens them even more. Instead of finding ways to incorporate dehumanizing rhetoric into this chipper, seemingly supportive aura, Logan's script eventually forgets about this approach. Owen Whistler and the other counselors else eventually just forces kids to shoot dogs and also tie teenagers up for electroshock treatment like any other conversion camp. All the potentially interesting drama that could emerge from depicting homophobia smuggled into "encouraging" behavior never emerges.

Even worse, though, is They/Them's half-hearted approach to being a slasher movie. If it weren't for an opening prologue depicting a woman getting slaughtered on the road, we wouldn't get our first kill until 50 minutes into the movie. When this masked killer does show up, their slayings are largely kept off-screen, a baffling choice that runs counter to everything this horror subgenre is supposed to be about. Nobody remembers Jason X for its story or themes, but they do remember that lady's head getting frozen and then obliterated. A few good killings brought to life through practical effects could've livened things up tremendously. No luck. They/Them keeps the murder of homophobes off-screen and can't even be bothered to give the killer a cool outfit. They're just wandering around in The Bye Bye Man's cloak while wearing the titular object from Jim Carrey's The Mask

The lack of interest in being a fun slasher movie is a byproduct of They/Them wanting to be a (shudders) serious movie. The heavy emphasis on queer suffering, including an outright disturbing emphasis on a trans woman's genitals (what is this, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective?), make it clear Logan would like this to be seen as an engrossing drama first and a horror movie second. But showing queer people in anguish doesn't give your movie automatic depth, especially when all that anguish is happening to people we don't care about. The lack of focus in the writing means few of the queer characters even get names, let alone engaging personalities. Even supposed protagonist Jordan vanishes for a good stretch of the second act. Without any meaningful people on the screen, their torment is just hollow and miserable. If you want to be a weighty drama, that's fine, but They/Them believes the only way to get there is to show trans people crying. 

Even more bizarre, though, is how poorly integrated the slasher stuff is with the conversion camp material. The slasher villain never targets the queer kids and only goes after the counselors, which means They/Them inherently lacks the propulsive suspense of a Scream regarding who will get slaughtered next. The murders don't even reverberate with the campers, we don't hear them talking about how "the janitor got murdered last night!" It's like these killings are happening in another movie before the final awkward 15 minutes arrive. Logan's lackluster filmmaking sensibilities also become readily apparent once it's time for any murders or torture to start. I was especially disappointed in the flat look of everything and the lack of imagination in the sets. One counselor has a bunch of creepy ventriloquist dummies in his house, which feels like a backdrop that could've been lifted from Dead Silence. Similarly, Whistler's main office is filled with the heads of wild animals he's hunted, including a rhino head that just made me think of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

These wildly uninspired ways of visually signifying who is and isn't a villain speak volumes about the lack of interesting images contained in They/Them. Even the two sex scenes have no fun flourishes to reflect physical queer bonding, they're just filmed with the same stagnant style as basic dialogue exchanges. It's not enough that Logan's screenplay is a miscalculated disaster, it also has to look terrible too. 

We could be here all day outlining the various ways They/Them fails both the queer community and the slasher genre as a whole. Hell, the ending alone, in which it's revealed that the masked killer is a former camper coming back for revenge, could inspire entire essays on how laughably miscalculated it is. What's reassuring, though, is that in the year 2022, at least this isn't the only queer movie around. In the last few months alone, Bodies Bodies Bodies and especially Neptune Frost have emerged with openly queer casts that challenge conventions of both narratives and visual formalities of traditional genre entertainment. With so many varied pieces of queer genre cinema around, not to mention endless options for general slasher cinema, viewers no longer need to settle for something like They/Them

We can all just leave this to gather dust on Peacock and only bring it up to make fun of its very worst lines. Poor Quei Tann, having to deliver the clumsy line "I'm a Black transgender woman" without vomiting, she should get a medal for that... 

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