Us And Them Review [SXSW 2017]

Joe Martin’s Us And Them is less a dangerous class-warfare battle and more a steamy soapbox rant. It’s positioned as “a deadly game of chance,” but don’t expect some Saw-like torture chamber. Anti-establishment angst fuels a fire that rages in the name of social responsibility, through tirades that attack fat-cat bankers who “don’t understand” a working man’s struggle. You can see where Martin draws influence from Guy Ritchie (narrative choices) and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, yet Us And Them‘s bark is worse than its bite. This is a human story about people who look for answers in all the wrong places, and the chaos that ensues. Blowhard, ill-conceived chaos that goes up or down in flames, depending on your personal outlook.

Jack Roth stars as an underprivileged youth named Danny. For years he’s squeaked by with minimal compensation, stuck in an economic world that keeps the poor hungry and privileged fed. Banks gamble with investor dollars, only to receive government bailouts when their own schemes fail. It’s a system that Danny will no longer tolerate, so he starts small by holding a banker’s family hostage in the name of lower-class rebellion. He screams into a camera about the wrongs one-percenters never feel, urging others to join his crusade of accountability. There’s no telling whether Danny’s anger is for show or committed to violence, but for one wealthy family, their sacrifice could be a catalyst for change. What an honor!

The principle cog of Us And Them is Roth’s leading charisma, since he’s the one delivering pre-planned monologues. His accomplices, played by Andrew Tiernan and Daniel Kendrick, are mere muscle. Roth is the one waxing on about how greedy financial firms promise trickle-down wealth without proof of concept. His stare fixates on a camera that’s constantly filming, breaking through the 4th wall and into theater audiences. Martin may be a bit heavy-handed with his scripted aggression towards a large (and unreasonable) wage gap, but again, it’s for added effect. Roth’s job is to make us feel like he’s pushing to extremes, because that’s his intention. To strike a powder keg that explodes later on – right proper with furious regard.

Martin’s technique favors non-linear, joke-laced storytelling akin to typical British black comedies. Fumbled planning means that a hostage escapes by banging against the wall of a rickety shed (quite humorously), while Danny works quick-witted jokes into the meanest conversations. Tim Bentinck – who plays the household’s king – earns a cuss-filled rant when his character internalizes some harsh insults he’d like to sling towards Danny. It’s a cheeky way to inject a little more aggression without spiking hostage tensions too early, and shows that Martin is thinking broader than hogtied criminal generics.

That said, Us And Them does seem to run on hot air. Roth keeps captives screaming – never predictable in his actions (to a tied-up family of three) – but Martin drags set-up and sequencing shots. For effect, there’s an elongated scene where Danny dunks Conrad (Tim Bentinck) over and over again into his private swimming pool. Danny’s meant to force Conrad into an unsavory decision, but the inevitability of it all grows with each extra gasp of air. Martin displays a tendency to bring points of excitement – like the reveal of a roulette board – but then shifts away instead of paying off immediate tension. There are a ton of ideas at play, but the non-linear delivery mentioned above does a disservice by cutting around too quickly. There’s so much Martin wants to screech, yet once Danny finishes up his little party, far less has gone down than expected.

Economic strife is always going to make for passionate genre fare. Joe Martin understands how to convey his message while still going the exploitation route, even if Us And Them is a little slower-burn than desired. There’s so much pain and sacrifice in Jack Roth’s performance, tuned to realistic working-class frustrations. It might look and feel like something out of the 90s, but grainy camera lensing and blocky word cards somehow fit this brighter-than-expected sucker punch. Punk rock anthems suggest anarchy while jokes about how generational wanking shoot a hearty “fuck off” to all those deserving. We’re done surviving – it’s time to start living. A nice sentiment, right? Not saying Us And Them has the power to start a revolution, but it’s an unsettling fire-starter to say the least.

Us And Them Review [SXSW 2017]

Us And Them might be a little slighter than expected, but Jack Roth's charismatic fire-starter has enough anarchistic anger to appreciate.