They/Them: An Empty Gesture

In a time of nearly untold harm for LGBTQ+ people, with rights being backpedaled upon, attacks on drag bars and other queer venues fuelled by media pundits’ acts of stochastic terrorism, where my existence as a living and safe human being is constantly challenged by the society that holds me— what our community needs is a bit of controlled horror. That’s what I told myself before watching They/Them, the latest from Penny Dreadful’s John Logan. It’s something that came up a bunch while negotiating the film’s title drop for my article back in May, and something I’m still thinking about now. 

When that article was published little was teased: only the setting—a conversion therapy camp deep in the woods—and the cast. And, of course, that title. They/Them (pronounced “they slash them”) was dead set on being a queer slasher, and you could smell the potential from the moment you heard it. Producers Blumhouse must’ve been chomping at the bit to make this film happen, just because of the buzz that title alone generates.

Enter John Logan; enter a nearly entirely queer cast with trans and nonbinary actors playing roles made for them; enter Kevin Bacon returning to the big screen. I’ll admit, I was enamoured. There’s something extremely charming about a film that’s fuelled by the creative energy of its title and broad concept alone. I was especially excited to see Logan at the helm, having fallen hard for Penny Dreadful as a teen, but I can’t help but feel that what he’s produced here is shortsighted, clumsy, and often patronising.

They/Them is a semi-competent conversion therapy thriller, with a tacked-on slasher narrative (included seemingly to justify the title) that undermines its own story. It takes its own place as LGBTQ+ film, the energy of queer horror with all its revolutionary power, the terror and torture of the real-life practices of conversion therapy, and reduces them into a coolly accommodating story of kindness, of “it’s okay to be gay” that clumsily navigates the emotional realities of queerness and frequently pulls its punches in pursuit of a naïve acceptance—rather than liberation—narrative. Put simply, it’s a film where “respect” means more than survival.

And that’s frustrating because, with an immediately stellar performance by Kevin Bacon (back in cinema after years of UK mobile network ads—no, seriously) the film does show an interest in dissecting the ideas of respect and discrimination. As Owen, the leader of Whistler Camp, Bacon is cheerful, charming, and only faintly hiding the bigotry innate to such institutions. “Gay people are A-OK with me!” he says, before expressing his hopes the teens will discover a “gender normative lifestyle.” It’s a telling moment, critical of a smiling, liberal form of religious bigotry, and one that the film, and Bacon, are more than capable of delivering. Oh yeah, they’ll “respect” you, but how much does that respect matter when their goal is to change you?

That desire for change is fundamental to the film’s more traumatic—and best—scenes, not least of which shows protagonist Jordan (Theo Germaine) in a “talk therapy” session with therapist Cora (Carrie Preston), who slowly digs her nails in, in an utterly vile and cruel attempt to traumatise and belittle Jordan into being cis: “you make yourself special, you become ‘they.’” The entire scene screams of the kind of film this could have been, nearly silent aside from Cora’s voice, tooth-gritting, white-knuckle anger, full of the kind of rancid self-aggrandisement and bigotry that trans and nonbinary people (like myself) have to deal with on a regular basis. They/Them excels in these moments, brutally effective, utterly chilling horror.

But, while the film might be more successful in those moments, such are few and far between. Instead, it succumbs to a kind of normative queer malaise that many “gay” narratives do, explaining didactically the ins and outs of every situation (Alexandra’s transness, for example, is constantly spoken aloud). Horror is queer, the audience is largely queer, the explanations are beyond unnecessary. Within Jordan especially, there’s a bastion of queer rage, a useful tool in the here and now. However, it ends up unfairly treated by the script which meddles in the muddy water of representation, and simplistic understandings of queer self-hate.

The whole thing feels pandering to a politics of identity, waving a pride flag and shouting “Trans Rights!” ineffectually while doing little to frame the pain and love that the film thrives on in its best moments. As such, the film’s trans characters are provided joy here, and pain, but never love, never sex, never even the hint of sexuality—despite there being more time devoted to the film’s (admittedly beautiful and intimate) sex scenes than its kills. No, Jordan is plain, ordinary, just a vessel for righteous rage and “coolness,” and Alexandra is a motherly figure who functions as a vessel for a throwaway (albeit effective) depiction of transphobia.

Missing Pieces

Studnets disembark from a bus.
There is genuine intimacy here, though. The ensemble cast undoubtedly has great chemistry (Monique Tam and Cooper Koch are highlights), which explodes out in a brilliantly baffling musical sequence as the cast belt out P!nk’s “F*ckin’ Perfect” in joyous rage at their captivity. It’s remarkable when it all comes together, but the bridges to those gaps are often trite and self-serious, creating dissonance between that and the terrific melodrama.

Add to this the overdubbing of dramatic music to emphasize the supposed importance each middling motivational conversation, each with lines which on occasion really do hit (“I’m tired of fighting, I just wanna be”). The rest is cheesy and strangely tokenising, too soft and distant for a film that makes its mark felt through sharp and tickling touch, and deep aching dread.

And this would work if that dread, if the relationships between the cast, and the campiness of its melodrama weren’t packaged in a slasher film. When the kills do start to roll in it’s all too little too late, they simplify the story in a way that is too neat, too clean, too easily packed up for our political moment. It becomes a murder mystery, and an unsatisfying, easily solved one with a borderline offensive final message of “be yourself.” The kills are fun, sure, but they diminish what could be a compelling thriller discussing an immediately vital issue.

The violence perpetuated in the camp is harshly exaggerated, almost satirically so, but the more realist mode Logan uses for much of the film (perhaps because of the subject matter) means that these moments feel misguided, as if representative of the broader swath of conversion therapy. But it doesn’t work like that, and I worry that by showing excess in a realist tone, Logan is misrepresenting conversion therapy in a way that makes it harder to identify more subtle kinds of coercion and cruelty.

And so, I ask this: What benefit is there to meaningless representation? Of course we hurt; of course conversion therapy kills—not with the sharp edge of the axe but with the aching cancers of pressure, denial, and petulant bullying—but then why include the axe? Through its slasher turn, They/Them undersells the brutalities of genocidal queerphobia and religious fundamentalism, presenting other extant evils emerging in tandem, moralising trauma in a way I personally find extremely aggravating.

Lacking the fiery rage necessary to discuss its subject matter, They/Them peters out into a middling stew of lost potential, made more frustrating by the many ways that it shows it can succeed. There may well be a great queer slasher sometime in the future, we ought to have our controlled horror, but I’m sorry to say, this isn’t it.

They/Them is showing on Peacock from August 5th

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Written by Riley Wade

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