The recent trend for whodunnits has brought some great (Knives Out) and some middling (Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot double-bill of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile) returns. However, taking a far more modern and very satirical approach, Bodies Bodies Bodies brings a funny and grotesque (but not in the way you might assume) direction that was a pleasant surprise.
With a hurricane set to hit New York state, Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) and new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) visit Sophie’s incredibly rich friend David (Pete Davidson) and their friend group at his parents’ mansion to sit out the storm. While the rich kids misbehave and party like mad, the storm gets worse, and the eponymous party game (think wink murder, but in the dark and across a sprawling mansion) turns horrifically real as tensions and hidden agendas explode to the surface.
Dutch director Halina Reijn’s first English film, Bodies Bodies Bodies is based on a story by internet celebrity writer Kristen Roupenian (google Cat Person, read that short story, and then see the madness that entailed for the full news cycle) and a screenplay by Sarah DeLappe. With one of these writers famous among those well aware of the internet’s mad ebbs and flows, it’s absolutely no surprise that the film incorporates a lot of phrases and buzzwords that the internet has made famous in recent years.
Beyond that element though, the film has more to say than one standout scene that (despite what trailers might suggest) thoughtfully and hilariously intersperses said phrases and buzzwords. With the borderline careless and carefree behaviour of this horrible group of people, and their utter failure to deal with a loss of power in a MANSION, you’re basically hoping they die from the outset – it’s like many other murder mysteries in that some characters are just utter twats, while others are given more depth (pre- or post-death) and surprises do arise.
The film definitely has a strong sense of place, and balances those competing themes of comedy, satire, horror and thriller well – though the satire does at times feel a little on the nose, and can appear to be mocking Generation Z from an older perspective, particularly in one buzzword-heavy scene that’s been featured in the trailers.
However, that scene is more than it appears – yes, it’s like “Terminally Online Bingo” for words like “podcast”, “triggered”, “cancelled” and the like, but it’s a really well written, hilarious hinge point for the movie that also hammers home a sharp reality. We all have friends that we sometimes just want to be brutally honest with or about, and this scene sizzles with inter-character tension and charge, while also remaining comedic and slapping the viewer in the face with the satirical focus.
Beyond that though, the script and direction create mystery and twists that are more intelligent than the film might appear to be, and from very early on it’s very much an adult film that’s trying to provoke a reaction one way or another. Like Knives Out, this film also has a sympathetic protagonist alongside similarly odious douchebags, though again like that film you’re never quite sure whether to trust her or not – adding to the mystery.
As mentioned with the sense of place earlier, the combination of airy, large mansion and pitch-black hurricane exterior make the home and weather feel like characters in their own right, while cinematographer Jasper Wolf either paints the garish home in light (pre- and post-storm), or cleverly utilises characters’ neon necklaces and smartphones for lighting after the storm takes out the power. It gives a large part of the film a unique look and feel, and adds to the horror/murder mystery feel.
It’s also quite clearly edited, and even though some scenes are harder to make out, that only enhances the mystery of the plot, editors Taylor Levy and Julia Bloch making you feel like you’re trapped with these idiots with uncomfortable, barely-lit close-ups in the dark. The dancebeat-heavy, modern soundtrack by Disasterpeace meanwhile takes the best elements of Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross electronic scores and grafts dance onto them – while there’s clever use of abrasive, in-your-face music like Azealia Banks’ 212 to hammer home the uncompromising attitude of the dickheads meeting at the mansion.
And so to the dickheads: the actors cast here do a fab job of making their characters almost completely (but not quite) unbearable. Ostensibly sympathetic, Bee’s girlfriend Sophie is played with an edge by Amandla Stenberg, who gives this interestingly unknowable character a dark history and hints of unspoken trauma with her older friends. Stenberg is great at marrying a more relaxed, open Sophie with the monster her friends had cut ties with, as well as illustrating the dramatic changes in personality drugs can have. She also is excellent when acting as the volatile powderkeg for the rest of the cast’s implosions and explosions.
Bakalova takes on a surprisingly dramatic performance given her Hollywood debut in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and the film doesn’t utilise her comedic skills, though that’s not to say – as our protagonist – that she’s not compelling. She offers a sympathetic perspective to galvanise the audience against the odious rich clowns she’s stuck in this house with, and there’s an unspoken air of sadness, and a need to fit in, that’s all too familiar to anyone who’s been stuck at a party where they feel completely out of place.
A more interesting and aggressive performance comes from Myha’la Herrold’s Jordan, the actor barely keeping a lid on the fury underneath from the first moment on, and she anchors that aforementioned standout scene as all the home truths come blasting out at the friends she barely tolerates. Chase Sui Wonders’ Emma, while less fleshed out than other characters, is a mess of contradictions and all over the place, offering us a more scattered person who we don’t really get to the bottom of.
Much more notable however is Rachel Sennott as the infuriatingly grating, annoying and shallow Alice, deploying the dim New Yorker accent perfectly and managing to be both pathetic and hilarious at once. She’s the comedic centre to the movie, and I’m sure will appear in a lot more comedies down the line. She works well in tandem with Lee Pace, whose older boyfriend Greg brings an uncomfortable air of danger and mystery (even to Alice), mixed together with a spaced-out, unnerving vibe. The actor excellently uses his height to add to that uncertainty, though he’s also more than capable of getting a laugh or two.
And so finally, we get to Pete Davidson, who I just don’t get as a comedian or a celebrity, playing what (to me) seems to be an extension of his actual persona. David is the sort of friend who can’t tell someone no, but then sort of gets to that in a roundabout and awful way, and that sort of awful guy who can’t resist amping up tension or reverting to alpha prick to assert dominance. Essentially, he’s perfect casting.
Don’t let the trailers put you off, as Bodies Bodies Bodies is an abrasive but hilarious mystery-comedy that doesn’t so much mock as full-on attack stupid rich people.