Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Is Scary Good
Lupita Nyong’o will rivet you to the screen
Thursday, March 21, 2019
Films Jordan Peele had his cast watch before making 'Us'
“A Tale of Two Sisters”
“Let the Right One In”
“The Sixth Sense”
Jordan Peele’s “Us” serves up a very different kind of horror from his debut feature “Get Out,” but it is scary good in its own way.
I won’t spoil anything about the film, but I do want to provide some context to appreciate its many layers.
The film opens with a title card explaining that there are underground tunnels of various kinds beneath the U.S., some from subways or mines but most of an unknown purpose. And yes, that is the first harbinger of what’s to come. The first scene is set in 1986 at a beachfront amusement park in Santa Cruz where a young girl has a traumatic experience.
Jump to the present day and the Wilson family is heading to Santa Cruz for a vacation. Gabe (Winston Duke) is a teddy bear of a dad always ready with a bad joke; Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is the matriarch and family anchor; Zora (Shahadi Wright) is their daughter who seems permanently attached to her cell phone; and Jason (Evan Alex) is their young son who enjoys wearing a monster mask. After a creepy day at the beach where weird coincidences pile up the Wilsons return home to find an ominous family waiting in their driveway. The doppelganger family is made up of a mother, father, daughter and son who look just like them but are identically dressed in red jumpsuits and armed with big gold scissors.
So begins the apocalyptic but deeply intimate horror of “Us.”
On a certain level, “Us” is a rather predictable horror tale inspired by an episode from the first season of “The Twilight Zone” called “Mirror Image.” But the deceptive thing about the film is that I could spell out all the plot twists and jump scares and that wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what the film is really about. That’s what makes it so delectable. As soon as you come out you want to see it again because you feel like there are layers to peel away to find meanings.
In one respect, “Us” is like a feature-length trailer for Peele’s upcoming reboot of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” As such it does the job of whetting our appetite for what Peele will do with the new series. “Us” proves that Peele is a kindred spirit to Serling in his ability to mix horror, dread, suspense, humor, satire and social commentary. Based on “Us” as well as “Get Out,” I am completely onboard for Peele’s new “Twilight Zone.”
Without giving away too much about the film, I will say that one of the unnerving aspects of the horror is that the enemy the Wilsons are facing look just like them. Peele has stated in multiple interviews that the film is asking us what our part is in the evils that we observe and maybe that we are our own worst enemy. The fact that the enemy looks like the Wilsons complicates our conventional horror response of just wanting to annihilate whatever evil or monster is threatening the protagonists. But the fact that they look like them does cause us to pause and make us ask why is that the case? Why have these shadowy doppelgangers come after their originals? There’s a certain sense that the two sets of families represent the haves and the have nots so is Peele saying something about the responsibility of the privileged for the disadvantaged?
And that’s one of the sly things Peele does, he takes the familiar tropes of horror and twists them ever so slightly to create a greater sense of unease.
He also loves using elements we recognize from other horror films whether it is the Santa Cruz setting, which was where “The Lost Boys” was shot, or elements that reference films such as “Jaws,” “C.H.U.D.” or “It Follows.” The trailer highlighted both scissors and rabbits and horror films have a long tradition of making such innocent items be the source of terror. Rabbits also raise the specter of lab experiments and that’s always disquieting.
Peele came to horror by way of comedy and that proves to be an remarkably apt path. Both horror and comedy are about timing and building up tension that can be released by a laugh or a scream. His astute sense of timing and pacing allows him to use humor at exactly the right moment to give us an ever so brief break from our anxiety. But to be clear, this is a horror film with occasional moments that spark laughter. It is not a horror comedy or a comedy of any kind. I hope the Golden Globes are listening.
Peele had his cast members watch 10 films in preparation for making “Us.” It is enlightening to know that the films were: “Dead Again” (scissors and loss of memory), “The Shining” (threat to the family unit and from within it, and maybe to see the trope of the “magical Negro” as a contrast to Peele’s film), “The Babadook” (psychological horror, dealing with trauma and grief, mother character), “It Follows” (sense of dread, seductive visuals by the same cinematographer Mike Gioulakis), “A Tale of Two Sisters” (twins), “The Birds” (sudden and inexplicable terror from something we never saw as a threat), “Funny Games” (home invasion), “Martyrs” (gore, suffering), “Let the Right One In” (perhaps about how the past impacts the present), and “The Sixth Sense” (things are not always what they seem).
Peele has said that “Us” is not a film about race and that’s both true and false. “Get Out” was fueled by a desire to deliver not just a different kind of horror film but to provide a point of view that mainstream audiences had not really had the chance to experience. In his feature writing and directing debut Peele created a film that served up not just a black protagonist in a horror film that doesn’t die but a film that conveyed a wholly black perspective on American society. It was a horror film about race in America and it had a lethal edge of satire as well.
So “Us” is not about race in the direct way that “Get Out” was, but it is about race in the sense that Peele doesn’t make an issue about the fact that he centers his film on a well to do black family. So it’s about race in the way he challenges Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that says a film needs white stars to have mainstream success. “Get Out” broke ground in how it made race an issue, and “Us” breaks ground by not making an issue of the race of its characters. But Peele is also a sly and intelligent filmmaker who layers many things into his film and some of those layers can’t help but allude to issues about race.
When “Us” premiered at SXSW Peele responded to an audience question with this explanation of the film: “I have a very clear meaning and commentary I’m trying to strike with this film, but I also wanted to design a film that was very personal for every individual. On the broader stroke of things, this movie is about this country. And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken by the fact we are in a time where we fear the other. Whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us, take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger, and I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us.”
But the way Peele frames his message in the film, it does not direct criticism at specifically the left or the right but at us all and suggesting that maybe we are not taking responsibility for something that we should. And of course, that makes it easy to read the title as not just "Us" but as U.S. too. As he reveals more about the doppelgangers, the film grows more complex and ambiguous. And it does something that most films never do, it asks us to think. It doesn’t tell us what it’s about but rather wants us to contemplate what it all means.
And while everything in the film — from the entire cast to the technical crew — is of the highest caliber, I do want to single out Nyong'o for her absolutely brilliant work as both Adelaide and her doppelganger Red. She holds the film together with her fierce and riveting performances, and it really is two performances, each unique.
I will reveal one thing from the film that is not in the trailers. It's not a spoiler, but going in knowing this may prompt some thoughtful preparation. The film references Jeremiah 11:11, which taps into a number that some feel portends something bad, but it is also is a perfect mirror image. The elevens reflect each other like the doppelgangers do the Wilsons. But the Biblical verse is significant too: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken here.” And yes, that’s scary too.
“Us” is not as tightly crafted and thematically focused as “Get Out,” but it reveals Peele growing as an artist and ambitiously expanding what he wants to do. He has suggested that “Get Out” and “Us” are part of a quartet of movies he is planning, but he won’t give any specifics of what that might mean. But based on these two films all I can say is I’m hooked and am eager to see whatever he creates.
Jordan Peele’s “Us” serves up a very different kind of horror from his debut feature “Get Out” but it is scary good in its own way.
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