Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

January 25, 2024

The Blood-Curdling Sadness of All of Us Strangers

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I took my mom to see All of Us Strangers over the break, after American Fiction had sold out and Poor Things had seemed a bit explicit for a family viewing. She liked the movie but noted that the conclusion had confused her: Why wasn’t Adam sadder in the end? After all, the final “twist” of the film is unambiguously devastating, and he does seem to take it fairly well. I found it less frustrating from a narrative perspective, but nonetheless troubling for the film’s conclusion. Sold as this year’s  “most likely to make you cry” film, All of Us Strangers does not simply tug at the heartstrings or offer a moment of cathartic melancholy, but rather renders in its viewer a sense of unshakeable loneliness, as necessary to the human condition as is its denial to a peaceful existence. It is not simply a sad film, but a terrifying one. 

            Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers finds its origins in the Taichi Yamada novel Strangers — which had already been adapted by Nobuhiko Obayashi into the brilliant The Discarnates. The story follows a screenwriter occupying a nearly abandoned building as he juggles a new relationship with a mysterious stranger and a series of supernatural encounters with his dead parents. Haigh diverts from the previous two iterations by introducing into the film a wrinkle that Adam, the screenwriter played by Andrew Scott, is gay and never had the chance to come out to his parents while they were alive. Straddling the line between the melancholic and horrifying, the film takes a premise that could give way for essentialist interpretations of the nature of grief, and ultimately rejects them for something far darker. 

            Billed as a vehicle for the performances of the year, All of Us Strangers features brilliant turns from Jamie Bell and Claire Foy as Adam’s parents, a characteristically empathetic performance from Paul Mescal as Adam’s love interest, and a strong (if occasionally overshadowed) center in Andrew Scott. Haigh also opts to tell the story relatively delicately, restraining the genre thrills largely until the third act, and fading or zooming between softly (and often warmly) lit scenes rather than harshly transitioning between the two worlds Andrew finds himself within. Adam’s nearly abandoned apartment building, too, reflects a different ghostly quality than its counterpart in the Obayashi classic: a brand-new London high-rise that is “nice,” if undeniably alienating. Even when the film diverges into true moments of horror, there’s a relative slickness to the whole affair: For both better and worse, the film is mostly sterile. 

            Unsurprisingly, the impetus of such a remake (reconfiguring Adam’s character coming out to his parents) makes for some of the film’s most powerful moments. Claire Foy’s discovery and immediate anxiety is deeply felt, but it’s Jamie Bell’s scene discussing a fatherly failure to connect that really stands out. Though the film spends so much time trafficking in the supernatural, expressing itself with stylish camera techniques and evoking a surrealistic vision, its center of gravity is ultimately contained in a single moment of honesty. In contrast, Adam’s romance, though not poorly executed, often leaves enough to be desired that it can provoke impatience in waiting between Adam’s returns to his childhood home. 

            As the film begins to expand into the third act, Haigh begins to really isolate his lead by incorporating necessarily lonely settings. A drug trip scene and a few dream sequences serve primarily to set the film not only in a setting where isolation is experienced but where loneliness becomes inextricable from the place’s point. Adam, for all of his encounters with ghosts has some semblance of company up until the moment where each encounter ceases to be more than a sub- or hyperconscious mental projection. Yet, even amid the horror, the film teases a semblance of a happy ending, an invocation of the need to move on, and perhaps some look toward a brighter future. 

            Yet, uncontented with simply ceasing Adam’s nostalgic reunion, the film buries the knife with one final twist. Before leaving, Adam’s parents state (or warn) that no time can ever be enough, correctly identifying not only that one will more likely than not lose their parents in their lifetime, but that most (if not all) of their intimate relationships will themselves end in one way or another. Few people die at the same time as a loved one and in their arms, and even then it becomes difficult to believe that such a scenario could constitute enough time with them. Adam’s discovery, and subsequent acceptance (or perhaps denial) of that unthinkably sad condition of humanity can feel unsatisfying. But any alternative is largely unlivable. All of Us Strangers ends with the hearteningly horrifying message that perhaps we are capable of forgetting how fleeting and impossible each moment of human connection is. We may not be able to remedy the necessary loneliness, but at least we can forget about it for a little while. 

Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].