SXSW Movie Review: US AND THEM (2017)

When it comes to films with a political message, filmmakers run the risk of alienating viewers by espousing divisive ideologies or leaning too far on either end of the political spectrum. I know some films have made me reach for the “off” button by being overly preachy, or by pushing ideas down my throat that I simply don’t agree with… but US AND THEM… now here’s a movie with ideology I can get behind! Fuck the 1%! Hell yeah!

Unfortunately, I’m not that keen on the way it goes about preaching it.

Danny (Jack Roth) and his two working class drinking buddies plan a heist on a rich family that reside in an opulent mansion out in the English countryside. Pretending to be their daughter’s boyfriend, Roth infiltrates the home and takes them hostage with the intention of streaming the attack live on the internet. Through broadcasting savagery and violence against the rich, he hopes to capture the attention of the disaffected 99% and herald a revolution against the status quo.

The biggest drawcard in US AND THEM is the ideology. It’s not often that cinema truly picks on the rich. Real discourse about economic inequality on the screen is usually held back by the capitalist trappings of the filmmaking business – after all, who’s funding these films? Filmmakers generally don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. Through the ages, art – while being ostensibly for the people by its nature – has generally been funded by or created as tribute to the elite. US AND THEM covers issues rarely tackled, and for that, I appreciate it.

However, it never presents itself as aware of the paradox that it creates. Here is a capitalist product preaching against the evils of capitalism. The irony becomes even more potent when you consider that Jack Roth, son of actor Tim Roth, is in the film as a result of one of the most unpleasant and rampant side-effects of capitalism: nepotism. It’s hard to look at his performance, no matter how good it is, and truly believe him as a working class man – a guy who’s had it tough, and has become fed up with the rich – when you consider that he’s grown up in a successful (no doubt lavish) showbiz environment thanks to his father’s place in the industry.

Is it unfair to judge the film on those terms? I don’t know, but I can’t help it. That will come down to the individual’s opinions which, like the politics in the film, will be divisive and divided. The other issue I had is with the characters. In between diatribes about sociological and economic injustice, the film pulls out all the stylistic stops to make its characters look “cool”. They walk in slow motion to the beat of eclectic musical choices and they commit violent acts to the tunes of Mozart and Schubert, but no matter how “cool” they might be, they forget to be likable.

Roth’s character may have an admirable cause in mind, but the way he goes about it is brutal and savage. This film falls into the terror/home invasion sub-genre, but rather than focusing on the experiences felt by the victims, US AND THEM flips convention and we get insight into the terrorizers instead. While this may be a curious idea in theory, in practice it paints the protagonists as violent scumbags. Is this how we’re supposed to picture the 99%? As barbarians who maim and kill?

As a result of the characterizations, the film’s message becomes muddled, although there may be some redemption before the credits roll depending on how you interpret it. I won’t discuss what happens to avoid spoiling anything, but before you get there, you’ll find the journey fraught with flashback after flashback after flashback.

Director Joe Martin wears his influences on his sleeve. If the casting of Tim “Mr. Orange” Roth’s son wasn’t enough, US AND THEM is structured in a non-linear temporal patchwork reminiscent of Tarantino’s work and, by extension, Guy Ritchie’s. Ritchie himself was also heavily influenced by Tarantino, so what we have here is like a fuzzy third-generation VHS dub of Tarantino’s style.

US AND THEM wants to be like RESERVOIR DOGS or PULP FICTION in showing us cutaways to events that led up to the “present” action. But do we need to see Roth buy a gun? Do we need to see them plan the heist? Do we need to see how they targeted the family? All of these scenes feel redundant and perfunctory. We may spend more time with the characters, but we don’t find anything revelatory, or anything we couldn’t infer from the present time proceedings which could have easily stood alone without the flashbacks. The framework is contrived for the sake of trying to place the film on the shelf next to other, better films.

US AND THEM is not great, even though at some level it may have its heart in the right place. It just doesn’t manage to transmit its ideas to the screen as smoothly or naturally as I would like. The performances certainly aren’t bad, and it’s shot well (on actual film I believe, unless mine eyes deceive me). At the very least, it has the balls to say something not many other films do.

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