“This is not a safe space,” quips the tagline; presumably “Haha, get it?” didn’t fit on the one-sheet. Thoroughly taken with its own antic almost-cleverness, the movie is a grisly post-millennial whodunit, graced with actors who are reliably good whether they’re being slashed, bludgeoned or reduced to cheap satirical punchlines. The most revealingly ugly scene finds a handful of surviving characters clinging to some of the Extremely Online generation’s more obnoxious social media pieties: “I’m an ally!” “Feelings are facts!” “A podcast is a lot of work!”
OK, that last one is kind of funny. You could say something similar about “Bodies Bodies Bodies”: It’s kind of funny and kind of scary, if ultimately neither funny nor scary enough to keep the two modes from canceling each other out. The director Halina Reijn (“Instinct”), working from a script by the playwright Sarah DeLappe (itself drawn from a story by Kristen Roupenian), is trying to pull off something appreciably ambitious here: the nihilistic crowd-pleaser, the cynically tossed-off generational statement, the evisceration of insufferably vapid characters that somehow avoids tilting into its own insufferable vapidity. She’s also bent on making a smart, crafty genre picture that will keep you guessing, laughing and screaming simultaneously — and this, too, proves its own devilishly tricky proposition.
For a while, though, it’s a fun, intriguing one. This toxic circle of friends (plus a few significant others) have gathered at someone’s sprawling family estate, among them Sophie (Amandla Stenberg, very good) and her shy, wide-eyed girlfriend of six weeks, Bee (Maria Bakalova, ditto). Sophie’s friends are surprised to see her (she totally blew off the group texts), and a few seem actively displeased for reasons that the script keeps under wraps even as it gradually ratchets up the emotional tension. Does it have something to do with the history of substance abuse that landed Sophie in rehab not that long ago? Why is David, whom Sophie calls her best friend in the world, giving off such bad vibes?
The simple answer is that David is played by Pete Davidson, a veritable bad-vibe artist who’s clearly winking like mad at the audience. With his black eye, light pink hoodie and endless lines of coke, David is like a strung-out Easter Bunny, though with his easily threatened ego and his knack for taking everyone down a peg, he also projects an air of genuinely unpredictable danger. He’s especially hostile to Greg (Lee Pace, alternately goofy and menacing), the hunky 40-ish newcomer who’s dating their friend Alice (Rachel Sennott), who runs the aforementioned podcast. And for sheer tell-it-like-it-is ruthlessness, David is nearly matched by Jordan (a ferocious Myha’la Herrold), who makes no secret of her contempt for Sophie. A storm is clearly brewing, and not just the one that’s set this party in motion.
Locking yourself in with a bunch of friends and a lot of booze on a dark and stormy night is a long-standing tradition. (While the movie was shot at a mansion in Chappaqua, N.Y., the story’s location isn’t specified.) To pass the time, Sophie persuades the gang to play Bodies Bodies Bodies, the murder-mystery party game whose objective — to ferret out the “killer” — can have its own lethal effect on interpersonal relations. Having played some version of it myself with friends in college (we called it Mafia), I can still remember the game’s way of bringing grudges and resentments to the surface, forcing us to scrutinize each other’s expressions, gestures, silences and speech patterns for clues, and to prey on every possible sign of hesitation or insecurity.
But hey, at least no one actually died midgame. The characters in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” aren’t so lucky. Not long before someone gets sabered to death by an unseen assailant, the power suddenly cuts out, taking the WiFi with it. The shrieking, blood-spattered guests are plunged into darkness, with only glow sticks, cellphones and the odd LED light-therapy face mask to cut through the thick shadows of Jasper Wolf’s edge-of-visibility cinematography. The impossibility of calling (or tweeting) for help becomes ever more stressful as bodies and accusations pile up and the “And Then There Were Numbskulls” plotting kicks into overdrive.
The denizens of the self-aware “Scream” franchise mocked and contextualized their ordeal by citing classic horror films. One mumbled Russian-cinema reference aside, the bad boys and mean girls in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” give little indication that they even watch movies; social media apps, not motion pictures, are the technological medium in which their stories will be written and recorded. Still, it’s hard not to wish that the filmmakers, if not their characters, showed a bit more cinematic savvy: A few moments of well-mounted tension aside, the cumulative effect of all this underlit mayhem is less suspenseful than monotonous. For a while, you are held by the jittery urgency of the camerawork and the jolts of Taylor Levy and Julia Bloch’s editing, but these can only go so far to disguise the fact that, from scene to shouty, shadowy scene, the basic genre mechanics haven’t been fully thought through.
The best parts of the movie take place before all that hell breaks loose, when nerves are more rattled than frayed, and sanity and nuance are still within reach. Nearly everyone is irritable and irritating, but Reijn and her actors modulate skillfully enough. Sennott, the breakout star of last year’s less stabby squirmfest “Shiva Baby,” wrings a few moments of comic gold as the hapless, trend-chasing Alice. I especially liked Chase Sui Wonders as David’s passive girlfriend, Emma, who tends to clam up and shut down in ways that are more humanly recognizable than the others’ queen-bee diatribes. And speaking of Bee, Bakalova, Oscar-nominated for her riotous work in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” is unsurprisingly strong as a sympathetic but mysterious outsider who, like Sophie and a few others, is harboring a few secrets.
One of these so-called friends must be the killer, right? Let’s just say that the ease with which everyone arrives at this conclusion — while an obvious whodunit convention — is also meant to be a withering collective indictment. In an age when everyone makes a fetish of authenticity, friendships are shown to be the flimsiest and least authentic of constructs, mediated by TikTok and easily destroyed by an illicit text chain. To that end, probably the best way to approach “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is as a movie about the horrors of losing your internet connection.
There’s promise in that idea, and in Reijn and DeLappe’s understanding of how, even in a politically progressive, racially and sexually inclusive crowd, people can and do wield the language of social justice to hide their own glaring privilege. But their insights are undone by an over-the-top, over-the-banister third act whose satirical targeting proves needlessly crude, more in terms of verbiage than violence. In a story that means to hold up a cracked, bloodied mirror to Generation Z, it’s fitting that the movie’s contempt for its characters — undisguised and admittedly not unwarranted — winds up backfiring on itself.
‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’
Rating: R, for violence, bloody images, drug use, sexual references and pervasive language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 5 at AMC Burbank 16, AMC Burbank Town Center 6, AMC the Grove 14 and AMC Century City 15
Originally published at www.latimes.com