REVIEW: They/Them Has Strong Leads And Stronger Potential, But It Fails To Land

Sometimes a movie has everything going for it: a wonderful cast, a top tier writer behind it, some great ideas, and a premise that’s literally to die for. Sometimes, despite all that, the film fails to find its roots and land its premises anyway. They/Them, from writer/director John Logan, is unfortunately one of those. It has everything going for it, but a few thematic, plot, and structural issues hamper what could have been an era-defining slasher.

In They/Them, the feature directorial debut of John Logan (who penned a number of films, including Gladiator, The Aviator, and much more), a group of young LGBTQ folks arrive at a gay conversion camp, led by Owen Whistler (Kevin Bacon). Campers Jordan (Theo Germaine), Alexandra (Quei Tann), and more struggle through the increasingly threatening camp atmosphere, and that’s before a mysterious killer starts hacking through various camp residents.

A number of the performances in They/Them really work Theo Germaine is excellent as the complex central protagonist, landing toughness and vulnerability in considerable measure. Quey Tann’s Alexandra adds so much heart to the movie while Austin Crute’s Toby is charming with great comedic timing. The nefarious camp counselors also give strong, threatening performances with Kevin Bacon has a largely successful multi-layered approach to his demented character of Owen Whistler.

The script, from seasoned veteran John Logan, has a number of virtues in its dialogue. Many characters’ dialogue really works, delivering humor or emotion when it’s needed. It’s clearly a well-intentioned film that centers LGBTQ heroes in the context of true villains, and the laser focus here produces quite a few emotional or celebratory scenes that do work, and which work rather well.

There are issues, however, that undercut some of this considerable potential in undesirable ways. For all its self-and-community-empowerment virtues, the film remains thematically messy. It’s hard to be too precise here without giving too much away, but here goes. A central theme here is that we LGBTQ folks have a right to determine our own destinies, lives, and happiness—no one else has a right to tell us what to do and who we can be. So far, so good. At the end, however, we discover that one character with a conversion camp history is going to extreme measures out of a sort of a drive for vengeance stemming from their own story, alongside a protective dream of preventing anyone else having to face that fate.

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It’s pretty clear in context that we’re supposed to cheer for that character through said extreme measures, but yet one of the protagonists both refuses to join them (don’t tell me how to live my life!) and turns them in. It’s a stunningly milquetoast pivot that undercuts the actions we were supposed to cheer, despite them happening to truly bad, terrorizing villains. Additionally, why are we supposed to champion LGBTQ folks choosing their own path when this truly wronged character HAD chosen her own path, a path forged by absolute terrors, but we’re suddenly supposed to negate her very personal need for well deserved vengeance? I’m not saying every deep, evil movie slight should end with ‘infinite vengeance’ per se, but it’s a thematic pivot that undercuts what THIS film had been building in pretty odd ways, all in an effort to be safe.

There are also character changes that don’t make sense motivationally (a particular heel turn has literally no motive that makes any sort of sense) and a musical number that becomes a full fledged music video which shifts from celebratory to cheesy depending on who is asking. Of course, John Logan is a spectacular scribe, but some of these choices need refinement in either concept or execution.

Finally, for a whodunit slasher the pace is all over the place, and with it the excitement. Very little of the ‘horror-style’ activity happens for the first half of the movie, then something starts to occur, then a lot more nothing before all hell breaks loose, but it’s too quick and too easy to really ratchet up the much needed tension. Once things start happening, it’s also easy to predict what’s going to happen next with some accuracy as well… some red herrings and a little obfuscation would really help here. Keep the audience guessing, and those moments would really have dialed up the scares.

They/Them may be one of the cleverest horror titles in years (it’s pronouns but they actually do slash them, get it?), but it unfortunately isn’t one of the best horror titles in years. It boasts some wonderfully written scenes with a number of very talented performers, but the thematic issues, a few major plot and structure issues, and an ending that is inexplicably bad undercut what is otherwise a promising film with a much needed premise. It’s a pity.

They/Them is available on Peacock.