They Look Like People

United States. Directed by Perry Blackshear, 2015. Starring MacLeod Andrews, Evan Demouchel, Margaret Ying Drake. 80 minutes.

Once again, let’s turn to Wikipedia, the repository of all human knowledge:

The Capgras delusion (or Capgras syndrome) is a disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a friend, spouse, parent, or other close family member (or pet) has been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.

The Capgras delusion resembles the “pod people” trope: invading monsters taking the form of our friends, our coworkers, our loved ones, their goal the eventual eradication of humanity. Inevitably, only one person (or a small group of people) has any knowledge of the monsters’ agenda and the coming disaster. Such narratives only rarely examine the psychological toll such knowledge has on those who possess it. What must it be like to know something so terrible…and to understand that nobody you tried to convince would ever believe you?

In Perry Blackshear’s feature-length début, They Look Like People, longtime friends Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) and Christian (Evan Demouchel) unexpectedly reunite after some time apart. Both men have recently endured devastating break-ups. While Christian seeks to overcome his lack of confidence with weightlifting, alpha-male affirmations, and romantic overtures toward his boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake), Wyatt seems to have taken the opposite route, becoming antisocial and withdrawn.

But Christian doesn’t know the truth of why Wyatt and his fiancée broke up. He doesn’t know about the late-night calls Wyatt receives from sinister strangers. He doesn’t know about the stash of power tools and hardware Wyatt has stashed in the basement. And he definitely doesn’t know that Wyatt believes the world threatened by an impending invasion of pod people.

Blackshear approaches his material as a psychological thriller rather than as an alien-invasion horror story, maintaining a laser focus on the relationship between the two men and how they’ve changed since they last met. Blackshear does away with many of the investigative and procedural elements that often accompany the trope. He uses the pod people not as a primary source of dramatic conflict, but as a sort of environmental challenge: they exist and must be dealt with, but what they mean to Wyatt is more important than what they actually do; they are a thematic approximation of his neuroses.

The screenplay takes something of a minimalist approach to the narrative, never overexplaining and leaving the audience to fill in many gaps on their own. The protagonists are often unsympathetic—Christian’s “affirmations” bear an uncomfortable resemblance to pick-up-artist dogma—but deft characterization, in addition to powerful performances from Andrews and Demouchel, make them seem more real than most fictional alien hunters. Blackshear makes the most of his low budget, taking the emphasis off of visual effects (although deploying them effectively when needed, such as a backlit silhouette composition of a sleeping figure that makes her seem faceless) and using sound to keep the audience at the edge of its seat.

I did feel things did start to unravel towards the last ten or so minutes, and I wasn’t sure whether I was satisfied with the end; but, for the most part, Perry Blackshear has crafted an unconventional and highly unnerving thriller. Definitely worth checking out.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society for bringing They Look Like People to Chicago.

THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE poster.

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