One wonders if it’s by accident or design that Drinking Buddies, the film apparently meant to mark an evolution for mumblecore maestro Joe Swanberg, has received the same theatrical release date as Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (spoilers herein), which casts Swanberg as Drake, a dickish chatterbox who’s finally killed off after being shot with an arrow and impaled with multiple sharp tools. Drake is someone who might have appeared in one of Swanberg’s earlier films, and he’s not the only ill-fated character to be played by a member of the writer-director-actor’s inner circle. The ubiquitous Amy Seimetz, who starred in Swanberg’s Alexander the Last, plays Drake’s sister, Aimee, whose throat is slit when she’s clotheslined by a strategically placed trip wire. And horror director Ti West, who worked alongside Swanberg on the anthology project V/H/S, is Tariq, Aimee’s filmmaker boyfriend and You’re Next’s first victim, who gets an arrow straight through the forehead.
It’s crucial to note that all of these folks, as well as AJ Bowen, who plays Drake and Aimee’s brother, Crispian, are also Wingard’s friends and colleagues, having worked with him on projects like A Horrible Way to Die. And it may well be that You’re Next is just the cheeky, incestuous offspring of like-minded co-conspirators, who opted to put their latter-day twist on the Scream formula. But seen another way, this movie performs a stunningly ambidextrous feat, reclaiming irony from the mouths of today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings and then using it, contextually, to attack the mumblecore-ish mood that’s permeated a generation. If a character starts smugly or nervously spouting lines with the kind of zeitgeist-y levity that’s rapidly losing luster, odds are that person is within minutes of pain, death, or, at the very least, a disgusted scoff from a co-star. With a title that could be seen as a double entendre linked to artistic progression, You’re Next seems to say, “Tired of the irony that’s branched off of mumblecore and invaded your daily life? Don’t fight back, let the movement’s progenitors handle that, taking an axe—and a crossbow, and a machete, and a screwdriver, and a blender—to it.”
The way in which Wingard is able to balance You’re Next’s tonal irony is a towering triumph all its own, the film’s precarious blend of real terror, situational comedy, abrupt shocks, and perfectly lousy deadpanning besting that of Scream and virtually anything similar that’s come since (including The Cabin in the Woods). Working from a script by frequent collaborator Simon Barrett, Wingard quickly establishes his conceit, brazenly merging the home-invasion thriller with the dysfunctional family dramedy. The approach feels novel, giving the potential victims a whole new layer of shared, messy history, and regardless of the level of humor suffusing a given scene, it keeps the stakes sky-high, as a character seeing his mother stabbed in the face with a machete is a lot different than one seeing his high school friend gutted.
The family gathering that sets up the proceedings is held at a rural mansion owned by filthy-rich patriarchs Paul and Aubrey Davidson (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton), in celebration of the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary. For Crispian’s comparatively pauper-ish girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson), it will be the first time she’s met any of his silver-spoon-fed kin. Even in showing its archetypes, You’re Next operates at a perfect pitch, with former scream queen Crampton doing just-right scenery-chewing as loopy Aubrey, and Seimetz nailing an overcooked bit as daddy’s little girl.
It’s also worth noting that a lesser film would harp on the class differences between Erin and the Davidsons. But You’re Next avoids peddling a tired theme, choosing instead to employ the age-old plot point of money as a motive for murder. The lack of forced timeliness is one reason the film stands to outlive its era, and another is the ace craftsmanship on display. Teaming with cinematographer Andrew Palmero, Wingard, who also edited the film, doesn’t initially bowl you over with showy technique, but rather lets his spooky, streamlined aesthetic reveal itself slowly, in tandem with the gradualness of the story’s twisty scares. Eventually, he delivers at least three of the most memorable—make that indelible—slow-motion sequences in recent cinema, putting to glorious use a visual device that’s been trampled on since The Matrix. His visual irony cuts down to the marrow, particularly in bookending shots that have the hunter and the hunted alternately, and hauntingly, nestled alongside his and her respective prey. And in a basement-set sequence that features a camera’s auto-flash as bait for the mansion’s masked invaders, Wingard stages a killer’s comeuppance that’s as formally gorgeous as it is cheer-your-guts-out cathartic.
And at the center of all of this is Vinson, the gyrating beauty from Jon M. Chu’s criminally undersung Step Up 3D, as a deliciously efficient Final Girl for the ages. The shrewdness of Vinson’s casting is manifold, for not only has she been an untapped talent in the States, but the retention of her Aussie accent in the film becomes a subtle augmenter of her character’s outsider-ness (“I just don’t like it,” Drake’s uppity girlfriend says of Erin’s voice in a tossed-off moment). It would be so easy to make a one-percent-versus-99-percent assessment here, focusing on how working-class Erin strives to outlive a clan of cookie-cutter yuppies. But look again and it appears there’s much more at play. When ass-kicking Erin is finally asked about why she’s so good at staying alive, she says she grew up on an Australian survivalist compound. This should unquestionably be the point at which You’re Next jumps the shark, but Vinson sells the moment with absolute, committed stoicism. Erin is the straight man among clowns, the old soul who’s had enough of chatter-for-chatter’s-sake and the fear of seriousness, the irony-slayer wielding a meat tenderizer. Though it may just be aspirational, the lingering feeling is that Wingard, Swanberg, and company have used Erin as a vessel, one who can slice up their established methods and set the stage for creative reinvention.