The Human Contract is a film that wears its colours on its sleeve. Its boldness is evident in the title, which neatly summates its themes: the human condition is reflected as a series of contracts. Some are literal. Lead protagonist Julian is faced with divorce papers. His career hinges on an exclusive business deal. Other forms of 'contract' are figurative. Julian is devoted to his family (his sister and mother). He enters into an erotic "contract" with a woman called Michael. Michael is married, but has an "understanding" with her husband. Frequently these contracts blur: Julian's relationships - such as the violence he enacts in defending his sister - impact on his business obligations (which require him to uphold "family values"). The latter caveat flags another set of contracts: duties to law, to morality and so forth. Julian's violence threatens to disrupt each of the contrcats that situate him socially. That is, his regular eruptions expose how fragile our various contracts are, and so how delicate sociality itself is. Moreover, each contract is a shield that masks truths. The narrative is built around secrets that force themselves to the surface, be they those hidden in Julian's locked darkroom, or those that manifest on Michael's body in acts of self-harm.
Pinkett-Smith unpicks these complex relationships with admirable control, especially for a first time director. That Pinkett-Smith starred in rom-com The Women just before releasing this film augments how intense and unexpected The Human Contract feels. Sometimes that darkness becomes a little unwieldy, but for the most part the film is restrained in tone. For example, Julian questions Michael's name within the first few minutes, and only receives the response that it is a 'long story'. Fortunately, there is no further hint of a Crying Game-style revelation: the name is a red-herring. Paz Vega (of Sex and Lucia fame) puts in a strong performance, which may leave the viewer wanting to know more about, for example, Michael's relationship with her husband. However, Pinkett-Smith wisely sticks to telling Julian's story, revealing just enough about Michael to draw the audience in. The film is certainly not perfect, but it is sumptuous, brave, and deserves a broader audience than it has received.