Studio: The Orchard
Director: Joe Martin
Writer: Joe Martin
Producer: Danielle Clark
Stars: Jack Roth, Tim Bentinck, Daniel Kendrick, Sophie Colquhoun, Paul Westwood, Carolyn Backhouse, Andrew Tiernan
A disenfranchised man holds a privileged family hostage in their home to make a political statement about the class divide.
Working class wealth woes have preoccupied conversations over countless pints in countless pubs since before the term ‘blue collar’ existed. Peasants. Serfs. The 99%. History changes the words delineating the downtrodden, but the message of oppression remains the same. The rich always get richer while the poor simply suck it up and take it.
Complaining to his mates is no longer enough for Danny. Maybe he can’t narrow the societal divide. But Danny is going to take a running leap across it with a roar instead of adding to the chasm of complacent commiseration echoing down below.
A chance bit of eavesdropping and a misplaced cellphone lights a bad idea bulb over his head. Danny has the figurative keys to infiltrate an elitist estate and broadcast table turning torment where each side tastes how the other half lives. For the Stonebridge Family, it’s a power play founded in psychological suffering. For Danny, it’s a political statement.
To make sure his message his heard, Danny enlists two not-particularly-bright friends to aid with rope, duct tape, and recording duties. Tommy and Sean are blinded by dollar signs, thinking they’re going to make money by smashing and grabbing a few fancy watches. Danny has other ideas. So do the Stonebridges. By the end of the evening, this poorly-laid plan of one mad as Hell man will change everyone involved, and not for the better.
“Us and Them” is a home invasion thriller whose intensity comes from its class system commentary instead of simply the horror of being held hostage. Think of it as having more in common thematically with “The Purge” (review here) than with “The Strangers,” so to speak.
Writer/director Joe Martin is clearly charged up on the Brexit/Trump climate of the film’s production year and channels that sociopolitical energy directly into context. Danny is motivated by relatable feelings of disenfranchised animosity, yet his questionable method of straightening the seesaw makes him as much of a villain as an antihero. The Stonebridges also argue their privilege from positions of entitlement as well as earnestness, adding two more sides to a cubed coin.
Tension comes from each fiery combatant being unwilling to budge, with no clear moral majority making either more in the right than the other. This tug-of-war conflict powers suspense from people pissed for all the right and wrong reasons, ready to stand up and smite any threat to keep, or take, what they see as rightfully theirs.
Martin’s aggressive storytelling hand stays strong, though he falls into a bit of first-time narrative feature filmmaker quicksand by tearing too much from the playbook pages of Tarantino, Ritchie, and the rest when it isn’t really required. Intertitle cards separate chapters arranged out of sequential order. Some black humor and “aha!” moments come from backwards-filled blanks while other scenes don’t benefit at all from chronological confusion.
Another trap of shoved style comes from regularly juxtaposing classical music with coarser compositions from The Sleaford Mods and The Damned. Take your pick of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Vivaldi, and The 1812 Overture. They’re all overused orchestrations for establishing bourgie backgrounds and “Us and Them” employs every one of them. Screaming punk music underscores Danny’s end of the equation, except these vocal-heavy tracks are consistently placed under dialogue, creating more of a distraction than they should.
It’s a freshman faux pas of making music work harder than it has to when onscreen action conveys enough mood on its own. It’s also the kind of thing Martin is likely, hopefully, to have out of his system by his sophomore spin.
The hook of “Us and Them” is the breakout performance of Jack Roth as Danny. Even if you didn’t know his name or lineage, you’d recognize him instantly as the spitting image of his father Tim Roth. The similarity doesn’t stop at physical appearance. It’s in the unmistakable Mick Jagger sneer of smoldering intensity and calculating contempt that feels fueled by a powder keg. Jack Roth’s motormouth and mannerisms suit Danny’s dangerous disposition to a T, and alone are enough to make the movie a worthwhile watch.
“Us and Them” ends, slightly vaguely, in perhaps the only sensible way it can considering the course taken. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if the movie’s food for thought isn’t fully swallowed because the climax chokes itself on sensationalistic action.
Still, “Us and Them” has more to chew on than many similar suspense stories. Not only is its topical terror timely, it’s also timeless. There may be no more entertaining way to reflect on the ever-present gap between haves and have nots than with a sometimes calm, sometimes chaotic crime thriller whose punch may not always aim straight, but nevertheless lands hard.
Review Score: 70