Out of Time
By Michael Koresky
All of Us Strangers
Dir. Andrew Haigh, UK, Searchlight Pictures
The atemporal, in-between state of gay life has rarely been so keenly or poignantly dramatized on screen as it is in Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers. Many of the greatest cinematic interpretations of queer experience—the melancholic twilight childhood of Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, the blank-walled rooms and anonymous truck stops of Chantal Akerman’s Je tu il elle, the vacant apartments of Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’amour and the autoerotic trashscape of João Pedro Rodrigues’s O Fantasma—make desire inextricable from loneliness and isolation. To this lineage, Haigh contributes his own strong central visual conceit: a nearly vacant new high-rise on the outskirts of London, inhabited solely by two men on different floors. Adam (Andrew Scott), a screenwriter who lives alone and appears to subsist on fridge leftovers, is increasingly cut off from acquaintances and friends, who have all begun to move to suburban enclaves to raise families. His only companions appear to be his laptop, with its teasing white Word documents (EXT. SUBURBAN HOUSE – 1987), and his TV, blaring music videos of eighties Britpop bands. One night during a fire-alarm test, Adam stands outside and looks up at the dark tower, only one other apartment illuminated, a silhouetted figure bathed in blue light looking back down at him. This building mate turns out to be another gay man, Harry (Paul Mescal); unlike Adam, he’s impish and charmingly forward, but, as he appears at Adam’s door with a half-empty bottle of whiskey in his hand, similarly solitary. His first, half-soused words to Adam: “How do you cope?”
It’s a question that will hover over Haigh’s film, which gradually, and through a series of metaphysical twists, reveals itself as an inquiry into what creates that loneliness, how one survives (or doesn’t) while feeling out of step with the forward march of time, and the various forces, social and personal, that leave lasting wounds. Those constantly and tiresomely peeling their eyes for images of queer positivity might read all this as a kind of wallow in gay trauma, yet Haigh has made a film about deeply internalized shame that’s imaginative, poignant, and sexy. All of Us Strangers parallels Adam and Harry’s burgeoning romance with a second narrative thread. Adam begins taking trains out to a neighborhood in South London (Haigh shot these scenes in a suburban neighborhood outside Croydon) and wandering its environs. Cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay’s subtle, barely perceptible zooms and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s eerie-alluring score begin to impose an otherworldly quality on these sequences, which are heightened by the appearance of yet another handsome stranger, a mustachioed butch played by Jamie Bell who locks eyes with Adam in the park and invites him back to his house. Though it initially seems the two men are cruising one another—and the film certainly, provocatively teases at this—we learn that Bell is Adam’s father and that Adam has been beckoned back to his childhood home, where he is also welcomed into the open arms of his mother (Claire Foy). That Bell and Foy appear to be significantly younger than Scott (indeed, the two actors are in their thirties, while Scott is in his mid-forties) is the first indication that we’ve left reality behind. It’s only in a subsequent scene that we learn just how much: Adam tells Harry that his parents were killed in a car accident before he turned twelve.
The ease with which Haigh negotiates his central supernatural conceit increasingly makes moot a viewer’s potential queries: Is this literally happening or is the journey back home just a tidy metaphor for healing open wounds? Or is it to be read as a visualization of this screenwriter’s creative process? Is Adam time-traveling or interacting with ghosts? Or are they visions in his head? Loosely adapting Strangers, a 1987 Japanese novel by Taichi Yamada, Haigh puts his story’s metaphysical devices and daydream ambiguities in the service of something quite concrete and personal, a meditation on gayness as both intrinsic personal trait and social construct. Meeting his parents for the first time since his pre-teenage years, Adam finds he is able to confront them about his sexuality in ways he was never able to; he’s not just going through the coming-out process he was cruelly denied as a child, which left him in a state of suspended animation, he’s also able to meet his parents eye to eye as an adult. Scott’s performance throughout, but especially in his scenes with Foy and Bell, in which he’s at once timid child and worldly grownup, is a wonder of constant emotional negotiation, one moment accommodating, the next recalcitrant, and always searching for release, redemption, or some form of closure that might prove impossible to someone whose life has been so defined by psychological wreckage and a loneliness equally, inextricably formed by the loss of his parents and the realization of his sexuality.
Adam’s paranormal ability to talk to his parents, who are stuck in a 1987 idea of the world, about his life as a gay man in the third decade of the twenty-first century facilitates complicated dialogues about the unsettled condition of contemporary queerness. These delicately written conversations are among the most authentic and heartbreaking of Haigh’s career thus far, allowing him to expound upon the tricky social situation of gay people whose day-to-day feelings of estrangement might not square with the widely held narrative of acceptance and assimilation. Revealing his gayness to his mother over tea in his childhood kitchen, Scott’s initial matter-of-fact boldness is subsequently replaced by something more challenged and discursive after a clearly disappointed Foy responds with that old “sympathetic” chestnut, “What parent wants to think that about their child?” But things are different now, Adam insists. Gay people are accepted by society—at least to their faces, he adds. “Are you lonely?” his mother asks. Adam’s hesitant response: “If I am it’s not because I’m gay. Not really.” “Not really…” she echoes, unconvinced.
Haigh might have directed his actors in a detached, externally ghostly fashion, yet by instead erring on the side of naturalism, something more surprising—and more disturbing—occurs over the course of the film, which is that Adam’s parents are granted the grace to register as much more than just his subjective visions. A tearful scene between Adam and his father, in which the former haltingly takes the latter to task for foisting upon him standards of masculinity and for never coming into his room when he heard him crying, might have come across as a kind of gay man’s wish-fulfillment, yet the flood of sentiment the conversation engenders between Scott and Bell goes far beyond emotional retribution. Adam’s casual revelation to his father that he still cannot cross his legs without thinking about his father’s admonishments about his perceived femininity will surely provoke shudders of recognition in many viewers, but Haigh is ultimately composing a deliberation between equals, grown men stunted by the same tragedy, experienced differently. In one the film’s most emotionally brutal moments, Adam reassures his mother that she died quickly in the accident (she didn’t). These are beings with their own unresolved issues, both with Adam and their lost selves.
As he explains to Harry later in the film, the terror of being eternally alone following his parents’ deaths got tied up with his attitude toward being gay, resulting in the feeling that “the future doesn’t matter.” All of Us Strangers doesn’t respond to this articulation of hopelessness with any kind of bromidic antidote; in fact, Haigh’s film, with its constellation of ghosts floating in some undefined netherworld, disconnected from any standardized forward motion, feels as in tune with queer theories around temporal futility as any film I’ve seen. In his book No Future, Lee Edelman spoke of the “appropriately perverse refusal that characterizes queer theory—of every substantialization of identity, which is always oppositionally defined and, by extension, of history as linear narrative in which meaning succeeds in revealing itself—as itself—through time.” At one point, Adam, a grown man inexplicably dressed in his infantilizing childhood pajamas, gets into bed to sleep between his parents, his face nearly pressed against his mother’s in a moment as comforting for Adam as it provokes Freudian discomfort for the viewer (and echoes the implicitly sexualized first reunion between Adam and his father). A grown man untethered from time, floating in an unreal past, expecting no future, Adam is a figure of both agonizing sentimentality and provocative nihilism.
Haigh’s film seesaws between Andrew’s confused attempts at absolution with his parents and his tentative steps into love with Harry, each a potential journey to self-knowledge with an unknown outcome. Haigh occasionally cross-pollinates these discretely cordoned worlds, heightening the ambiguity of their “realness” through dreams and extended musical cues; this is most effectively realized in a montage sequence set to Blur’s lurching “Death of a Party,” which begins with Adam and Harry going out dancing, threads through images of their growing domestication, and culminates in a disorienting, feverish nightmare that leads directly back to Adam’s childhood bedroom, an adroit description of the character’s perpetually transitional existence. The conditional nature of Adam’s familial relationship finds an analogy in his new, uncertain romance. Harry, who is about two decades Adam’s junior, represents another pole of experience to which the forty-something feels estranged. Explaining his fear of fucking to Harry, Adam reminds us that he was raised in the AIDS era, when it was constantly impressed upon gay men that sex equals death. Harry, younger, less afraid of intimacy, and more at ease with the term “queer” than Adam, is nevertheless hardly as a paragon of emotional stability, a reminder that the oppressive forces of the dominant culture are still very much alive and baring teeth. Adam and Harry’s latent traumas make it all the more poignant that Haigh, Scott, and Mescal portray their lovemaking with such rare tenderness and eroticism.
The premise of Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is so powerful, so primal, that it’s remarkable another queer filmmaker hadn’t happened upon it yet. Though its story comes with a high-concept leap of faith, it feels entirely instinctual, a heady film straight from the gut. Its broadly sketched themes—of life and death, sex and love, trauma and regeneration, time and stasis—certainly have the potential to connect with audiences of all identities, yet it’s a film that feels marvelously keyed into the experience of a specific generation of gay men, a work of great psychological authenticity. It’s a narrative of clear-cut boundaries and simple symmetries, but within them it contains galaxies of emotion; Haigh has found the precise outlines in which to color in a meditation on the strange, liminal experience of gay male existence.
The operative sensation of All of Us Strangers is catharsis, and Haigh and his extraordinary cast go about their project of purgation with honesty. A gay film this drained of irony, which refuses to shy away from big emotional wallops, could be difficult to swallow for some, yet the earnestness that All of Us Strangers traffics in feels cleansing. Haigh dares to go places other gay films don’t, perhaps for fear of being too maudlin; yet the writer-director finds just the right, precarious balance between what’s left unspoken and what’s given direct voice, leading to a final note of emotional maximalism that ascends the film to a kind of cosmic rapture. There’s even a baked-in thesis of sorts that justifies or at least explicates its unabashed musicality. Adam ensconces himself in the pop music of his past, queer or queer-adjacent Brit synth pop bands; in addition to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the film luxuriates in Erasure, Blur, the Housemartins, and, in a family Christmas tableau of brilliant incongruity, Pet Shop Boys. Adam uses music to fill the dead spaces, a reminder of how gay men have long used pop cultural detritus to form cultural identities and communities. At the end of the film, Harry, no stranger to loneliness himself, closes his eyes and, in Adam’s embrace, implores, “I never could stand the quiet. Could you put a record on?” Adam does and, despite the sadness we’ve born witness to, sends the movie into the heavens.