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Youths and Vape Pens and Pete Davidson, Oh My!

‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’ is a horror movie takedown of well-monied 20-somethings, but it never cuts as hard as you hoped

A24/Ringer illustration

Pete Davidson died for their sins: Early on in the gory whodunnit Bodies Bodies Bodies, the erstwhile King of Staten Island is found by a swimming pool in his hoodie, his carotid artery severed. His character, a coke-nosed trust-fund scumbag named David, died as he lived: bickering with the other navel-gazing, well-monied 20-somethings who make up his social circle, all of whom hated his guts enough to be seen as potential suspects after the fact.

This particular weekend’s festivities had included a “hurricane party” held at David’s parents’ well-stocked, well-isolated mansion—a perfect getaway culminating in a liquor-lubricated round of the role-playing murder mystery game “bodies bodies bodies.” In this context, the presence of a corpse might be chalked up to a prank, but as it becomes clear that David is really dead, his guests have to face up to one of two troubling realities. Either one of them has blood on their hands, or there’s somebody else in the house, waiting out the storm with time to kill. It’s all very Agatha Christie, or maybe The Hateful Eight—“hateful” being the operative word with these particular characters. On a more meta level, though, David’s departure has even more dire consequences: It means that a movie being marketed as an edgy, Gen-Z version of Scream will have to proceed without its biggest star.

Of course, Scream did just fine without Drew Barrymore, and Bodies Bodies Bodies quickly recovers from killing off Davidson (somewhere, Kanye West is smiling). As a then-there-were-none slasher pastiche littered liberally with plot twists and red herrings, Dutch model turned actress and filmmaker Halina Reijn’s American directorial debut is more effective than you’d expect. It gets from left to right with a swift, ruthless efficiency. Shooting mostly in pitch-dark rooms lit by the glow of cellphones, beneath a soundtrack drenched in torrential downpour, Reijn shows that she’s got chops and a knack for humid, nervy atmosphere. She also doesn’t lack confidence: When Bodies dropped at South by Southwest in May, the filmmaker compared her project to Chekhov, with a straight face. “I’m obsessed with power and sexuality in a pressure cooker environment,” Reijn explained, playfully dissing her classically trained background in the process. “My whole whole life has been Hedda Gabler, The Taming of the Shrew … I was like, ‘Can I please have some f**king fun?’” Hence the closing needle drop of Charli XCX’s new single “Hot Girl,” with its monotone vocals and lyrics that double as an ominous plot synopsis. “Pull up to the mansion, pull up to the party / All my friends are so hot, we’re gonna get it started.”

The premise (though not the final screenplay) of Bodies Bodies Bodies is credited to Kristen Roupenian, whose career-making 2017 New Yorker short story “Cat Person” mined a rich, cringy vein of post-millennial anthropology. A first-person account of bad vibes and worse sex about a female university student who hooks up with an older man, “Cat Person” jabbed at topical talking points—not only age-gap relationships, but a specifically toxic strain of beta-male masculinity embodied by the protagonist’s emotionally distant cinephile boyfriend. In a social mediasphere primed by the fallout from #MeToo, “Cat Person” was catnip for the commentariat, prompting more waves of discourse than any cautionary relationship fable since Gone Girl. The upshot of Roupenian’s tale was that while it’s hard to ever really know another person, usually with enough time they reveal themselves anyway. “The point at which [Margot] receives unequivocal evidence about the kind of person [her boyfriend is], is the point at which the story ends,” Roupenian told The New Yorker.

How much of Bodies Bodies Bodies belongs to Roupenian versus screenwriter Sarah DeLappe is hard to say, but the narrative plays with similar themes of intimacy and betrayal. It’s a film whose characters keep being confronted with unequivocal evidence about the kinds of people that they are, whether via accidental confessions or text-message receipts; the more they lie, the deeper they’re stranded in their own deceptions. The script hybridizes the everyday squeamishness of “Cat Person” with literal life-and-death horror, except that instead of using genre conventions metaphorically—as an entry point to a meditation on trauma, like so many other rising stars of the elevated-horror cycle—Bodies mocks pseudo-intellectual tendencies. Imagine the callow, clout-chasing grad students of Midsommar minus the human sacrifice and you’re almost there.

The question is whether all the bottomless obnoxiousness on display—the Extremely Online dialogue; the voracious drinking and designer-drugging; the painful proliferation of frenemies picking at each others’ psychic scabs, all while accusing one another of being “triggered”—represents genuine, timely cultural satire or a calculated, cynical capitulation to the moment. Or, more likely, it’s a little bit of both.

“They’re not as nihilistic as they seem on the internet,” says Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) to her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) before bringing the latter into David and Co.’s orbit—unannounced and possibly with ulterior motives. In recovery from addiction and estranged from her wealthy parents, Sophie’s been MIA from her friends’ group text and isn’t interested in explaining why. Arriving at the house, she’s immediately side-eyed by her ex Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), whose resentment and unrequited desire are palpable; she’s also received coolly by Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), who may or may not be jealous of her close, sister-like friendship with David. Rounding out the crew are Alice (Rachel Sennott), a motormouth narcissist nursing delusions of podcast grandeur, and Greg (Lee Pace), the older stud she’s recruited from Tinder, who introduces himself to the group as a “vet” (a nebulous bit of backstory that pays off nicely later) and whose well-muscled physique becomes a source of desire and danger for all present.

Of course, these characters—with the exception of Greg, played with sly himbo finesse by Pace—are exactly as nihilistic as they seem on the internet, or at least they do their best to act that way IRL. And nihilism, as The Big Lebowski wisely reminds us, is exhausting. Sennott’s performance in particular drops a gauntlet in terms of sheer relentlessness, existing at the other end of the spectrum from her anxious but endearing work in Shiva Baby. Spending time with all these pent-up, coked-out assholes is a big ask for any viewer, even ones in the film’s zoomer demographic who may feel condescended to under the guise of pandering (or vice versa). But the strain of identification also dovetails with the basic imperatives of the slasher movie, which has historically played with the very real catharsis of seeing badly behaved young adults get what (we secretly think) they deserve.

In order for the genre to work properly, though, the worldview can’t be totally punitive. There has to be somebody whose survival is worth rooting for, or at least somebody who you’re not actively rooting against. Think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, or Neve Campbell in Scream, both of whom embodied a reassuring, suburban normalcy; even this year’s supremely mean-spirited X gave Mia Goth a triumphant Final Girl arc. The casting of Bakalova, who proved her kamikaze-comedy chops in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, as a putative heroine is inspired because normalcy isn’t in her wheelhouse—her screen presence bristles with ambivalence. With her crumpled posture and wide, bewildered eyes, Bee is an outsider who quietly seems capable of anything. Is the shy girl with the Balkan accent bearing home-baked zucchini bread actually trying to fit in with the in-crowd? Or is she secretly plotting to stab her way out of a weekend from hell?

The scene that brings the anxious tensions about Bee’s character (and Bakalova’s performance) to a head comes earlier than expected, and represents the apex of Reijn’s staging and direction—a standoff bathed in hot, expressionistic neon tones and punctuated with a nifty little shock. From there, though, Bodies Bodies Bodies has nowhere to go but straight ahead, gleefully flaunting the expendability of its cast members and scoring easy sociological points off the real-estate porn of its setting. Reijn has said that David’s pad is the sort of place where Trump would live, but the decadent evil of Mar-a-Lago was much better evoked this year in Better Call Saul. Plus, at this point the former president is low-hanging fruit for allegory-minded artists anyway.

To give credit where it’s due, the script’s trajectory is a little trickier than it seems, and the climax thwarts expectations while getting a pretty good laugh—a knee-slapper that makes a goofy sort of sense in retrospect. The final reveal also, quite intentionally, underlines the extravagant pointlessness of the entire enterprise. The takeaway is that the movie’s super-rich kids are ultimately too solipsistic to be the kind of criminal masterminds who usually show up in whodunits; while not quite innocents, they’re victims of anxieties that can’t be medicated or wished away. The idea of solipsism as both a birthright and a fatal contagion is a decent subject, and in movies like It Follows and Unfriended, it sticks. The same can’t exactly be said about Bodies Bodies Bodies: It’s clever but not trenchant, the cinematic equivalent of a tired, knowing shrug, warranting little more than that in return.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.