A successful executive on the verge of even greater professional heights meets a woman of mystery, upending their own lives and causing ripple effects in others'. It's not a set-up that has not been done before (in fact, it was pretty much done to death in the erotic thriller heyday of the early-to-mid-1990s), but in her debut as screenwriter and director, Jada Pinkett Smith has far more on her mind than prurient surface thrills, making a complex, difficult, intriguing film that digs deeper than outward appearances.
The latter extends to the casting, and Pinkett Smith's choice of the relatively unknown Jason Clarke as the lead, Julian Wright, proves to be especially canny. Without any existing star baggage, Clarke is not only a relatable Everyman entry point for the viewer, but he also well serves Pinkett Smith's larger concerns. Not only is he adept at conveying the personal demons and simmering impulses behind Julian's cool exterior, his rather anonymous appearance drives home what is ultimately the pervading issue that inspires the film's title. Julian is the very pre-packaged, non-individual picture of what most people would want out of life--good looking, well-off, securely employed, upwardly mobile, and still fairly young--or is it what he truly wants, or what society has trained him and people in general to equate with happiness? Julian comes to question that after meeting the mysterious Michael Reed (Paz Vega). Their initial encounter is simply fleeting small talk, but when he comes across her again by sheer chance, he feels compelled to pursue her--and, in what is an early example of how Pinkett Smith continually subverts conventional genre expectations, seemingly straight-arrow Julian quickly shows himself to be the more volatile half of the two. Michael and Julian nonetheless do fall into a relationship, one that has increasingly dramatic repercussions both in their own lives and in those of the people close to them.
As suggested by that latter point, _The_Human_Contract_ does follow a traditional erotic thriller trajectory, but that's just the accessible genre framework upon which Pinkett Smith hangs deeper, more pertinent issues. Both Michael and Julian have been scarred, literally and figuratively, from their youths, and it is clear they are opposite sides of the same coin: she the model of carefree moral abandon, and he the picture of cool control. But what exactly that means is the real question: who is happy, who is healthy, who is truly at peace, who is doing the "right" thing--and what exactly is "right" anyway, and by whose standards? Pinkett Smith wisely doesn't attempt to know the answers, but through not only Julian's relationship with Michael but also his and her relations with others, she calls into thought-provoking question the idea of the various "contracts" one has in life--not only with other people but with societal norms and expectations, and how the pursuit of such "order" and hence conformity can not only be stifling, but potentially destructive.
That sounds highfalutin and pretentious, but Pinkett Smith packages such themes in an accessible and absorbing manner, most notably through her actors. Clarke deftly handles the tensions brewing within his character, and he makes his flaws and frustration real and painfully relatable. He shares sizzling chemistry with the always-striking Vega, who has finally found an English language film that really allows her enchanting mix of beauty, sensuality, vulnerability, and dramatic depth. The supporting cast--including Idris Elba, Ted Danson, Steven Brand, Joanna Cassidy, and Pinkett Smith herself--may not have quite as much to work with as the leads, but as is often the case in films helmed by actors, Pinkett Smith coaxes effective work. But her careful attention to all cinematic aspects further underscore and support her larger ideas, such the striking contrasts between Julian and Michael's worlds in Carlos Barbosa's production design, handsomely captured by Darren Genet's cinematography.
Pinkett Smith does fall into some first-time writer-director traps, such as making certain things a bit too on-the-nose (for example, there are some troubling secrets literally kept under lock and key--and in a darkroom, no less), but all too rarely does one come across a film as both polished, thoughtful, and go-for-broke ambitious from even the most veteran of filmmakers.