The Secrets to Why the Movie Us and Them is a Microcosm of Life
Sometimes I look at other movie reviewers and I notice… hey, my ratings are totally different than every else’s. And I kind of wonder for a moment if I’m missing something that they are seeing that I’m not. But then I remember, that if you talk to any of my friends in the real, non-virtual world, they will tell you, Taylor loves movies no one else does. And if, for some reason, popular opinion swings towards a particular movie, I’ll run and hide. But occasionally I wonder why that is. Why are my expectations so different than Ebert’s? Or whomever’s? Why do I legitimately think so differently about movies than the average reviewer?
And then I watch a movie like Us and Them, and I realize that it’s 100% because it’s all about the idea for me. Truly. I really do believe that some avant garde film creator could film someone showing a screenplay. And just flipping from page to page as the audience reads it. And if the idea is a good one, and pushes the viewer (reader) to think? then I would be all about it. Totally. I really just want movie creators to let the audience think, and give the viewer interesting ideas worth our time. But if you pile 300 million dollars worth of special effects on top of an idea-less movie? I’m out. There isn’t enough lipstick you can slap on a vapid movie. You can’t dress up unintelligence. It isn’t doable in my mind.
Which brings me to today’s pick of the day. Us and Them. A closed box movie with big ideas and complicated underpinnings. But not widely loved. But if you ask my real life friends, they would tell you that I am probably giddy at the prospect. But what is it about? Well, the marketing tells us that it’s a movie about the 1% and the 99%. About the haves and the have nots. We are told that this is intended to be a rallying cry of the 99 to topple the 1. But that isn’t what it’s about at all. Not even a little bit. But we’ll get to that in a minute. If my opinion hasn’t turned you onto the idea (seeing as though I just explained to you why you SHOULDN’T trust my opinion, that’s fair enough!) why not try out this trailer first?
Us and Them Discussed, Unpacked, and Explained
The movie opens, and sets the tone for the entirety of the movie, and its ending, with the opening. We see a rat, trying to stay afloat in water… scrabbling, scraping, clawing to stay alive. And a voiceover tells us that when a pharmaceutical company wants to release a new depression medication, before the government will allow them to sell it they need to test it by putting rats in water. They remain in the water until they reach the “moment of despair”. And if after they are given the drug, the rat is able to continue longer in the water, the drug is considered a success.
I literally, completely, and totally, have zero idea that this is true. But it doesn’t even matter. Because the point the person is making is simple enough. Our baseline for life, our baseline for sanity is just a little better than a rat in their “moment of despair”. That we aren’t all attempting for a life of conga lines and giddiness. We are just trying to keep from drowning. That we are attempting to remain just sane enough that we won’t hit that moment of complete and utter despair. Right? So, it is with that mindset that the rest of the movie is set up and our movie chess board is readied for play.
Us and Them, The Players
Danny, having seen Phillipa and Glen wax eloquent like the privileged individuals that they were… all the while, sitting in Danny’s father’s local pub. Danny just becomes completely incensed at their air of entitlement that pours off of Phillipa and Glen. And when Phillipa leaves her phone behind, Danny now has everything he needs in order take revenge on her perfect life. So Danny enlists Tommy and Sean in order to pitch them on a heist to get back at the rich for what they had done to the poor. The 99% getting back at the 1%… right?
But Tommy has learned that the head of the house, Conrad, has a stockpile of expensive watches somewhere in the house. So he begins to angle with Sean in order to steal the watches in order to make his life better. I mean, after all, he was a printer, and was laid off. And why should he have a life that is so hard? Which brings us to Conrad, a well off, aristocratic individual that believes he is due his. And Phillipa, his beautiful daughter that instigated this entire plot unwittingly. That and Conrad’s wife Margaret, who is really just guilty by association and the life they all collectively live.
Us and Them Unfolds Like Origami
Alright, so Us and Them isn’t Quentin Tarantino. It isn’t Pulp Fiction, told in a backwards, forwards, this way and that blendering of the narrative that unlocks interesting insights and ideas as it does. But it does zig zag its way forwards and backwards narratively in such a way as to consistently illuminate things we had no idea were happening. Writer/Director Joe Martin is basically using this zig zagging technique in order to cut backwards from surprises to explain how each one happened. And it’s also a fascinating narrative technique that keeps pushing the story forward interestingly.
Us and Them the Story
Once untangled though, the story is fairly simple. One day, when Phillipa and Glen were heading to her parents house for a dinner appointment, Danny, Tommy and Sean ambush the couple. Danny and Phillipa head to the house in order to turn off the alarm and prepare the way for Sean and Tommy. But instead, Danny decides he is going to go in and impersonate Glen for a moment. While at dinner with Phillipa’s parents, Tommy and Sean take Glen and put him in a shed out back.
When the three felons/terrorists/99%’ers are reunited, Danny makes it clear to everyone, including his partners in crime, that this is all about sending a message. Right? It’s not about a robbery. It’s not about the money per se. It’s actually all about letting the world know that it’s time for the 99% to rise up and violently take what is theirs. I mean, after all, there are more of them than the 1%’ers. Right? And it’s then that Danny informs Conrad, Margaret and Phillipa that Conrad must choose one. And it is widely inferred that that person would be killed. But it isn’t understood what that has to do with a roulette wheel or what game it is exactly that they are playing. (I still, to this day, have no idea what the roulette wheel’s purpose was, or what the significance of the number 3 was. But I would love you to explain the rules of this particular game to me if you understand it.) When Conrad refuses, Danny takes Conrad out to the pool and dunks him in the water until he gives him Margaret’s name.
Possibly one of the most poignant moment of the film is when we learn that Danny’s father recently committed suicide in the bath tub. And as we see visions of this suicide interspersed with Danny’s dunking of Conrad. The violence intercut with this truly sad moment in his life. And with that, we begin to realize that there might be something else going on here for Danny. Maybe it isn’t about the 1%, or about the money, but something else. (Sean and Tommy having been told that they won’t be stealing from this house, as it would cheapen the message, Danny uses his gun to tie up the two and put them out front, they have been out of the picture for a while now.)
And when Danny returns with Conrad from the pool, with Margaret’s name freshly chosen, he begins dousing Margaret with petrol. So apparently, Conrad’s choice, was to burn Margaret alive? That’s fairly unfortunate. But Danny is just getting a rise out of the trio. He wants them to be forever changed from this day forward.
Us and Them and the Downward Spiral
At this point, we learn, that Glen has actually cut himself free, and hauled it in the house with a shovel. With which Glen hammers Danny in the face with. But Sean and Tommy saw Glen head into the house, and they break free of their bonds as well, and a melee unfolds in the estate’s living room. But the scrum is mainly between Danny and Tommy… which ends with Tommy stabbing Danny to death. After all, he isn’t leaving the house without the watches.
So, up Tommy goes… with Conrad in tow, in order to get the safe open. And its there, in Conrad’s closet one of the most important dialogues of the film happens.
Tommy, “Why do you even need this much stuff? I mean really?”
Conrad, “Work hard, and you’ll be rewarded in kind.”
Tommy, “Seriously? I’d be a millionaire by now if that’s all that mattered.” Tommy then tells Conrad that he’d been a printer, but when the recession hit he’d been laid off. And now? He stacks boxes for a living. “Even worse? The president of the corporation makes 200 times what I make. And in one year of his work, is it really worth three of my lifetimes of work? Really?”
Conrad, “Maybe he has skills that no one else has…”
Tommy, “That’s what I hate about the rich, you tell this myth that if you are poor it’s because you are lazy or stupid. You can’t accept that your success, just might, just might be down to what you are born into.”
And with this, I need to pause. Can I just say, that I have been around the world, several times, meeting amazing people in amazing countries, that are ridiculously poor. Like, mind-blowingly poor. And I will tell you this. If you, or I, were placed in that level of poverty, and told to figure it out. Odds are? We wouldn’t make it through the month. And yet, these people survive, day in, and day out. One of the children I sponsor with Compassion, his Philippine parents work crazy crazy hours to do as well as they do. The father, during the day, works at a factory sewing zippers onto backpacks. Then at night, he brings home backpack piece work, that he and his wife work on into the evening. Then, late at night, the mother, makes different kinds of food for the father to take to work the next day, and sell to his coworkers. And early the next morning the father is up and at it, heading to the factory again, with food to sell under his arm.
This conversation between Conrad and Tommy really struck a nerve for me. I mean, seriously? If you just work hard? That really is a myth.
But Tommy? He realizes that even if he were to walk out with the watches, he’d soon be caught because they had all seen his face. And so he stabs Conrad to death. He then heads down to the women, and pours the real petrol on the women, and lights the house on fire. But when he gets into the car? There is Sean, waiting for him, and he stabs Tommy in the neck, takes the watches, and heads off into the blissful beyond… roll credits please.
A Few Recurring Themes of Us and Them
As I mentioned at the top, the rats are probably one of the biggest leitmotifs of the movie. The rat race. The rat maze. All of it. We attempt to avoid depression and desperation regardless of how well of we all are. We try our best to avoid exasperation and reaching our whit’s end, and suicidal. The entirety of the movie is seen from the vantage of our being rats, caught in a maze, scurrying to survive as best as we can.
Another interesting point that was made early on was between Glen and Phillipa. Glen mentioned that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Phillipa laughed and said that that was a quote from Nietzsche who ended up basically insane at the end of his life. And so we can almost hear Joe Martin laughing through his screenplay, saying, really? Honestly? Adversity and horrible events is what makes us stronger? Did he have something else in mind instead? Is there an alternative that he is positing here? Not that I can see. But he is saying that our ideas of trials strengthening us is basically bunk.
And finally, the camera sticks two different times over the course of the movie. The first is on Sean’s straw as he is loudly slurping his soda in the middle of Tommy’s soliloquy about his plan to get Conrad’s watches. It breaks the flow of consciousness. It shuts down the logic of Tommy’s plan. It basically causes us to not get caught up in the argument that he is making here. And more importantly, after Tommy has the watches, and has stabbed two different people to get them, he stares at the fountain out back of the house. The water is flowing quickly, from the fountain, into the basin below. And it transfixes him. He stops. Stares. It’s as if he can’t even comprehend something that beautiful residing in someone’s house. But, from a narrative standpoint, water is a purifying force. It is a picture of cleansing. Forgiveness. Tommy is longing for redemption right here. He is regretting what he’s done and what he’s about to do already.
My Own Personal Thoughts on the Movie Us and Them
The story behind the story is what I was most enthralled with in the movie Us and Them. This undercurrent of disdain and hate that ripples through society between the haves and the have nots. I recently rode in a cab, with my family, over from Bryant Park, over to the Lincoln Center to watch a ballet (Don Quixote if you are interested). And the cab driver, who wasn’t exactly happy that I was shoving 5 people into his 4 person cab, out of the blue told me… “That building there? A woman jumped off of it yesterday. She was well off. I saw the paramedics and read the reports later. She was not happy, and had anything she could want. Happiness is a frame of mind. You can be happy with nothing. You can be unhappy with everything.” And it really struck me. We were only in the car with him for 20 minutes. But they were 20 of the most interesting moments I had while in New York with my family. (I really hope to eventually convince him to let me interview him some day. He promised me he would let me while I was in the Taxi, but having come from Africa, his English isn’t perfect, and I’m sure it would be difficult for him to do. But I learned so much from him in a very very short amount of time.)
But this is truth. And this is the truth of the movie. We spend our lives scheming and thrashing about. Wishing. And hoping. Killing and cutting in order to be happy. I don’t generally get all Bible preachery on you guys, but there is a perfect verse that discusses this tendency out of James 4:2-3
“You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.”
Yes, there is a tendency for the 1% to think they are more clever than the rest of the world, and that that is why they have more than everyone else. That they have earned it. But that isn’t true. You have, because of a luck of birth. Slap your “incredible intelligence” into a person in Haiti? Congratulations, you just barely figured out where to come up with one meal for the day. Even worse? We see these tendencies playing out at the world, and governmental level as well.
So yeah, it was a really great film, full of indictments and finger pointing for all of us. When was the last time that you were just thankful for what you have? Or are you too busy listening to that McDonald’s ad telling you that you deserve a break today? When was the last time you were thankful for your small apartment, or your clunker of a car? When was the last time that you were glad that you were safe? I reconsidered the last time I was thankful, and any movie that can get me (ME!) to slow down and be thankful, that? That is a good movie. What did you think of it?
Edited by, CY