It’s been a minute since I was in college. Enough of one I feel the need to add that qualifier while thinking back to the drinking games of yore we used to play: Never Have I Ever; Circle of Death; Flip Cup. In retrospect, these were contests of folly—poor excuses to drink, yes, but also to poke and probe your friends far more than necessary. Truly, one of the festivities was designed to get folks to admit they’re the weirdo who never did that (or maybe the only freak who would). Fortunately, none of these misspent nights ever had a body count… but could you imagine if they did?
Bodies Bodies Bodies director Halina Reijn certainly has. It’s the centerpiece of her elegantly designed and viciously mean-spirited Gen-Z satire, which is being released as the latest “A24 horror movie.” It’s impressive the indie tastemaker studio has become so synonymous with horror that its title card is a genre brand unto itself. And if it gets more eyes to watch something as wickedly perverse as Bodies Bodies Bodies, then more power to them. But while there are horror elements at play here—with the movie devolving into a chipper slasher at key moments—Reijn’s picture is really a game within a game. There is the titular drinking one which brings a group of recent post-college friends back together on a dark and stormy night. But in its heart of hearts, this thing is a whodunit murder mystery in the classic Agatha Christie mold, right down to its allusions to And Then There Were None.
It is thus a contest in which its mostly female-identifying characters compete to reveal the greatest insecurities, and juiciest ironies, that come with being young, attractive, of a privileged class, and in a generation that has lived its life online. They all partake in pseudo-intellectual didacticism when playing the game “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” but when real bodies start hitting the floor, they lack the vocabulary or self-reflection to acknowledge what’s happening. Instead they deploy empty accusations of “gaslighting” and “triggering,” even in the face of actual murder and slaughter. It’s bleak, brutal, and amusingly cruel, even as you feel a pang of pity for the chess pieces as they’re knocked down.
Working from a razor-sharp script by Sarah DeLappe (who is in turn working from a story by Kristen Roupenian), Bodies introduces us to this once airtight friend group through the eyes of an outsider: Bee (Borat 2’s Maria Bakalova). Introverted, quiet, and speaking with an accent, Bee was always destined to be at a disadvantage when introduced to the childhood friends of her new girlfriend Sophie (Amandla Stenberg). To be fair though, Sophie hasn’t seen them in a while either, distancing herself from their hard partying ways after a stint in rehab. But Bee, like the audience, is thrown into the deep end when she arrives in a humble t-shirt and jeans to a wealthy home owned by the parents of David (Pete Davidson), an entitled doofus who likes to hold court when his father is out of town.
On this particular night, David’s gathered former BFF Sophie, his current girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), and all their old friends from school, including Alice (Rachel Sennott) and Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), to wait out a hurricane that’s supposed to hit their town any minute. Alice has also brought her much older boyfriend Greg (43-year-old Lee Pace). Don’t worry, it’s not serious, nor is much else supposed to be on a night that’s intended for excesses of alcohol, drugs, and bad decisions. The worst choice, however, turns out to be agreeing to play “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a party game where one friend pulls a card that says they’re secretly a killer. All the others must sniff them out through accusations.
It’s a game designed to dredge up old drama from long-term relationships and encourage a mob mentality wherein factions of friends gang up on the weakest prey. It’s apparently a favorite of Sophie’s old crowd. Yet this proves to be the first time they play the game, and an actual dead body shows up on the floor…
Bodies Bodies Bodies marks Reijn’s second picture as a film director, but the Dutch talent has spent years in the theater, including when she worked extensively with iconoclast stage director Ivo van Hove. That expertise shows via the filmmaker’s acute focus on her leading ladies’ performances and the messy, faintly sympathetic psychologies that mark these game pieces as human, even as they’re mercilessly deconstructed and destroyed.
The film is, again, from Bakalova’s point-of-view, who is easy for audiences to identify with since she’ll spend much of the first act as we do—struggling to parse out the old wounds and passive aggressive grievances bubbling beneath the surface. Bee is dating Sophie now, but the micro-aggressions of Jordan toward this interloper confirm who used to date Soph; meanwhile David is dating (but really constantly negging) Emma; yet his jealousy of Greg, who’s a graying hippie vibing with wild child Alice, suggests another backstory we never really explore.
It’s a sordid, vain scene where all the characters have memorized the syllabi from their liberal arts educations, although not necessarily the contents. Nonetheless, they’re not quite a collection of caricatures. Even Bee remains aloof as our eyes and ears, drawing suspicion on both herself and her choice in partners since Sophie’s apparent flakiness (she’s ghosted everyone in the house for months and then showed up for this party unannounced) raises its own red flags.
All of the very game cast inhabits these characters with a winking authenticity that is just tangible and charismatic enough to not write any of them off as clichés… or as suspects. Shiva Baby’s Sennott steals scenes as the most vivacious and flighty of the group, but is it a put-on? And Herrold’s aggressive stance certainly raises eyebrows for any Poirots in the audience. It’s all a meticulously laid setup that keeps you guessing and second-guessing the homicidal tendencies of these neon-lit revelers until the glow sticks go out.
The ultimate twists and turns that follow are sleekly executed and thought out, achieving those crucial elements necessary for any good whodunit: surprise and credible explanations. But it also convincingly holds up a mirror filled with a dash of sympathy (and an overdose of schadenfreude) to modern youth culture. In a moment that favors groupthink consensus, trying to figure out who is the “other” in your group really is a deadly game to play. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Bodies Bodies Bodies opens in the U.S. on Aug. 5 and in the UK on Sept. 9.