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Non-Review Review: Us

Us is fascinating, if undercut by comparisons to Get Out.

Get Out was a phenomenal feature debut from writer and director Jordan Peele, an unexpected left-turn from a comedian who was (at that time) best know for his work on one of the decade’s best sketch comedy shows, Key & Peele. It was an unexpectedly sharp piece of social satire, an incredibly pointed commentary on race and identity in contemporary America, one held together by an incredibly strong central metaphor. Get Out was driven by an almost single-minded commitment to its core ideas, which were skillfully wed to a genre vehicle. It was always clear exactly what Get Out was saying, and why it was saying that in the way that it was.

Taking a second swing.

Us is a fundamentally messier film, at once more conventional in terms of its structure and rhythms while being more abstract and confused in its central metaphors. One of the central throughlines of Us is the concept of “the untethering”, and it often feels like a metaphor for the film’s own internal creative process. Us is a lot less focused than Get Out, a lot less together. It often seems like the film is caught in a tug-of-war between its two core elements: on one hand, the desire to present an old-fashioned home-invasion-turned-national-crisis narrative in the style of everything from The Strangers to Dawn of the Dead; on the other, a central metaphor touching on everything from Jungian anxiety to class warfare to the modern division of the United States.

So, to answer the important questions about Us: no, the film is not as good as Get Out; and yes, the film is really good.

Face yourself.

Again, the comparisons between Us and Get Out feel both lazy and inescapable. Nevertheless, they are instructive. While it’s tempting to look at Peele’s work primarily as a vehicle for “social horror”, it’s also clear that the director harbours a great affection for the form. Us is very consciously built and structured as a different sort of horror film than Get Out, and it is quite clear that Peele enjoys flexing his directorial muscles by shifting his second film in a slightly different stylistic direction. Us obvious retains the sense of humour that informed so much of Get Out, but its approach to horror is fundamentally different. Get Out was very much a slow-burn social anxiety horror – at least until it wasn’t – evoking films like The Stepford Wives or The Invitation. Us is a very different beast.

Us is much less interested in mounting tension than Get Out. Indeed, the sense of rising dread that ran through Get Out is largely consigned to the opening act of Us, which deftly balances character introductions with a palpable feeling of impending doom. However, Us escalates a lot quicker than Get Out. The second act of the film very promptly evolves from its claustrophobic set up into the kind of home invasion horror typified by genre pieces like The Purge, Straw Dogs or Funny Games. Peele’s horror stylings are a lot more overt this time around. In many ways, they are a lot more conventional. Indeed, even when Peele makes a point to push beyond the confines of the home towards the climax, the rhythms of Us feel a lot more straightforward than those of Get Out.

There is something interesting in this of itself. One of the big debates in contemporary horror is the argument over so-called “elevated” horror, and the emphasis that critical discussion and debate puts on films that borrow the trappings of horror while sanitising the genre’s more exploitative and sensationalism elements; the tendency to downplay the visceral for the intellectual. It is perhaps revealing that one of the most common criticisms of Get Out was that the film just wasn’t scary. Us seems largely about Peele engaging with that criticism, offering a film that consciously hews closer to the traditional trappings of exploitation horror.

Us is not particularly grizzly or violent compared to many contemporary horror films, but it’s much more aggressive than Get Out. After all, there is something much more immediate about the horror iconography of Us, much more tangible. Get Out was a film about appropriation and racism; while Us undoubteldy has things to say about contemporary America, it also places considerable emphasis on the golden scissors carried by its central antagonists. Maybe those scissors can be read as a metaphor for how disconnected people are from one another in this fragmented and scattered era, but they also work very well for stabbing; repeatedly, overtly, messily, aggressively. While Us never feels gratuitous or excessive, the blood flows a lot more freely than it did in Get Out.

“Have you seen The Strangers?”

This is perhaps the film’s boldest point of divergence with Get Out, the manner in which it feels much closer to the standard horror fare that floods into cinemas in the early months of the year; more like Escape Room or Happy Death Day or Split. There’s a sense in which the direction and structure of Us seems designed to reject the idea that Jordan Peele is making an “elevated horror.” Instead, he is just making horror. While the work of Wes Craven and John Carpenter was a point of reference in discussions of Get Out – and rightly so – Us feels much more of a piece with Craven and Carpenter’s approach to horror. There is undoubtedly a strong piece of social commentary here, but there’s also a commitment to good old-fashioned no-nonsense visceral horror.

Us is undoubtedly a piece of political cinema, but so is a lot of horror. Indeed, one of the most frustrating aspects of the “elevated horror” discussion is the way in which it erases the value of the political commentary made by more conventional and traditional horror filmmakers; A Nightmare on Elm StreetThey Live, The Hills Have Eyes and The People Under the Stairs are all undeniably political films that say things of value about contemporary America while working as genre exercises of themselves. Us pitches itself very much in those terms, and is much less overtly “about something” than Get Out. One of the most striking aspects of Get Out was the clarity of what it was saying, to the point that it seemed impossible to misread the film. Us is much broader and more abstract.

Us is designed to work on a variety of levels, and designed to be a lot more open to interpretation than Get Out. Indeed, as with the decision to lean face-(into-glass-table)-first into the conventions and expectations of the genre, it’s tempting to read this as something of a response to Get Out, an effort to demonstrate the range that exists both within the genre itself and within Peele’s engagement with the genre. Us refuses the sort of easy on-the-face-of-it reading of Get Out, sacrificing a lot of the conceptual clarity for a much broader selection of metaphors and imagery. Us can alternatively be read as a primal Jungian fable, a story of class anxiety, the uncertainty of race within America, and the manner in which media has fragmented reality. It can also be all of the above, or it can be none.

There is something equal parts exciting and frustrating about this. Us is a film that is a lot easier to enjoy on its own merits as a piece of film, to marvel in things like Peele’s understanding of how to pace a set piece or even as simple as to frame a shot. While Get Out demonstrated Peele’s understanding of how to structure a horror film and suggested the depth of his visual imagination, Us is frequently prettier to look at. Indeed, Us often feels like a collection of striking imagery: a symmetrical shot of a little girl standing alone at the top of a dark staircase with the neon lights of a fairground behind her; a collection of bunnies locked in cages arranged ever so slightly asymmetrical; the gold scissors and the red overalls; the flames dancing on a road at the edge of the sea.

Burn with me.

Thematically, Us is driven by a wealth of big ideas. The basic plot of the movie finds a woman and her family menaced by a group of sinister doppelgangers. The introductory sequences that juxtapose Adelaide against the mysterious “Red” frame this as psychological allegory. Red moves in fits and starts, like a stop motion puppet made of flesh. Her voice scrapes and creaks, words expelled as if by air from a deflating tire. Red is the uncanny. She is just recognisable enough as Adelaide that the differences become all the more unsettling. Explaining her origins and her motivations, Red narrates a story about “a little girl” and her “shadow”, a grim fairy tale that suggests a war within the self.

Indeed, Us makes a point to literalise the connection between each member of the Wilson family and their doppelgangers. The quiet and reserved Jason is seldom seen without his trusted monkey mask and constantly playing with a tiny sparker, so his doppelganger wears a much more ominous mask designed to cover horrific burns. Zora struggles against her parents’ aspirations for her success at track, so naturally her doppelganger is an Olympic-level athlete. The patriarch Gabriel is repeatedly revealed to be obsessed with status, so his doppelganger is the one most overtly focused on claiming the trappings of the Wilson family’s comfortably middle-class existence. These are creatures that have lived their existence underground, in the shadows, beneath the surface.

“We are our own worst enemies,” the movie’s tagline boasts. However, in the world of Us, it often seems that the expectations of the self are their own worst enemy. (This certainly seems like an apt theme for a director following up a breakout success like Get Out.) In its more interesting and successful moments, Us suggests this theme at both a personal and a social level. The characters of Us are repeatedly haunted by the expectations of others. Adelaide is reluctant to visit the beach where she was traumatised as a child, but Gabriel gets her to relent by acknowledging how much the kids (and himself) had been desperately looking forward to it. For his part, Gabriel is constantly obsessed with keeping pace with the Tylers, the wealthy white family with whom the regularly meet.

If Get Out was overtly about race, then Us seems more interested in class. Of course, race and class in American society are not easily separable. Indeed, the film goes out of its way to emphasis the whiteness of the upper-middle-class Tyler family. When Kitty is convinced that she sees something in the shadows outside the house, Josh jokes, “It’s O.J.!” Trying to relax a bit, Josh instructs the household’s speaker to play some Beach Boys, setting up a scene of carnage set ironically to Good Vibrations. Indeed, even when Us is not overtly about race, it cannot help but be. The revelations that the monstrous doppelgangers might be the result of amoral scientific experiments evokes nightmares like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

A rollercoaster ride.

Indeed, Peele cleverly and cannily creates a sense of effective discomfort through the lens of his black protagonists, shrewdly reversing some traditional horror movie dynamics. In many horror films, “otherness” exists in contrast to the accepted status quo, a creeping sense of something abnormal or different lurking in the shadows. In its introductory sequences, Peele inverts the dynamic. As Adelaide wanders through a fairground on the beach, the camera makes sure to emphasise the all-pervasive whiteness around her. Although never overtly threatening or menacing, it is always ominous. Indeed, the film’s credits role over a slow pull back from a white bunny on a shelf to reveal one of the (much rarer) brown bunnies on the shelf directly beneath it.

Although Us does not eschew the politics of race, it does not tackle them as overtly as Get Out. Instead, the film grapples consciously and repeatedly with fears about class anxiety. The Wilson family are presented as relatively comfortable, but still defined by their wants. Early in the film, Gabe proudly shows off the boat that he bought. It is portrayed as an absurdity, the ridiculousness heightened by the pride that Gabe shows in the cheap and unreliable vehicle. Only later does the film reveal that Gabe is trying to keep pace with Josh. Similarly, an afternoon trip to the beach for both families is followed by no shortage of simmering resentment. “Did you see his new car?” Gabe complains to his wife. “I swear he got it just to f%$k with me.”

Naturally, this anxiety is mirrored across the film’s central conflict. The doppelgangers at the heart of the film are presented as a literalisation of the gulf that exists between the “haves” and the “have nots”, a festering sore of resentment and envy. It is made very clear very early that Red’s anger towards Adelaide is rooted in the belief that Adelaide has taken something that rightfully belongs to her, that Red believes that she should have enjoyed the life that Adelaide has lived. There is something very primal and allegorical in that central metaphor. Us is built around the constant reminder that one’s circumstances could be down to nothing more than chance, that there is likely somebody who lived a very similar life who has found themselves in a horrific situation.

There is also a strong political subtext to these themes of class anxiety and resentment as they simmer through Us. Then again, this is hardly a surprise. A major plot point in the film is built around the “hands across America” initiative from the mid-eighties, a nostalgic invocation of the Reagan era. The film builds on that image to suggest a country that is literally divided by the act, rather than united; a country split down the middle rather than joined from coast to coast. (After all, the two coasts have arguably never had any real divide in terms of political perspective.) When news reports surface of these doppelgangers, it is very revealing that the newscasters make no mention of their similarities to the original subjects, but instead make repeated reference to their red jumpsuits.

The family that preys together…

There is, of course, a sense that Peele is being a little too overt in suggesting this metaphor, a little to eager to bait his audience with such a facile reading. “Who are you?” Adelaide asks her opposite number during their first conversation. Red answers immediately, “We’re Americans.” In fact, the entire film is very consciously and overtly American in nature. Unlike the undead invasions of films like Dawn of the Dead, the horror within Us is very firmly anchored in contemporary America. When chaos breaks loose and the family is forced to flee for their lives, Adelaide knows instinctively that safety awaits them across the nearest border. (There is, perhaps, another darkly cynical political gag in the image of a dispossessed family seeking refuge across the border in Mexico.)

Other parallels suggest themselves. The events of the film serve to shatter the very fabric of reality and an individual’s sense of self, the “untethering” serving as much as an abstract disconnect as a literal severance. The golden scissors suggest any manner of possibilities; they might just look scary, but paired with the almost surgical red overalls (shades of Dead Ringers) they might also suggest the cutting of an umbilical cord. It is clear that Red hopes to sever the tether that binds her to Adelaide, but there is also an implication that the horror is also cutting away at more abstract connections; perhaps the anchors that connect an individual to their sense of self or their sense of reality.

Us repeatedly and consciously evokes the medium of television. The opening scenes feature a young Adelaide watching television, the camera lingering on the screen even after she turns it off; the first reflection in Us is captured in a television screen. Later on, scenes of carnage and chaos are captured through the lens of television. Throughout Us, there is a recurring sense of an experiment run amok; it is revealed that the doppelgangers within the film were created as a means of social control, the duplication of an image in order to manipulate reality. With that in mind, Peele’s use of television news at various points in the story evokes the footage of real-life civil unrest. The doppelgangers that populate Us are effectively distorted, dangerous snapshots of the lead characters.

As such, Us might be read as a parable about the danger of such images, and the manner in which those images might cause havoc in the real world. After all, much has been written about the increasingly fragile grip that contemporary politics have on reality; a disconnect undoubtedly fueled by the projection of certain images and narratives into the mainstream by certain media. With that in mind, it is perhaps notable that Us opens on a television set in 1986. That was the year in which the Fox Broadcasting Company launched, setting in motion a train of events that would shatter the grip held by the “big three” on mainstream commercial broadcasting within the United States, and fragmenting the media landscape. (Also, naturally, paving the way for for Fox News.)

Red menace.

With that in mind, there is a lot to process in Us. More than that, there is a lot of negative space. Unlike Get Out, there’s no one simple overriding metaphor that serves to contextualise the movie. It is possible to read Us in terms of race, in terms of class, in terms of psychology, in terms of media. A compelling argument can made in favour of each, but without any singular decisive factor. It is perfectly possible for an audience member to come away from the film seeing all of these readings, seeing some of these readings, or seeing none. The result is a film that feels both ambitious and messy, sacrificing the conceptual clarity of Get Out for something a lot more scattershot and a lot broader. Coupled with the more traditional horror storytelling, it is an interesting juxtaposition.

Us does have the advantage of a strong cast to anchor it. As with Get Out, Peele assembles a collection of actors that he can trust with the material at hand. Even the supporting roles of the Tyler family are expertly cast, with Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker fleshing out otherwise stock tertiary characters. More importantly, the Wilson family is very effectively put together; the chemistry between the four primary cast members is immediate, and their dynamic feels natural. Winston Duke is particularly charming as the family’s bumbling and anxious patriarch, effectively offering comic support to the movie’s lead while still sketching a fully-developed character.

However, Us belongs primarily to Lupita Nyong’o as both Adelaide and Red. Nyong’o is one of the most striking and undervalued performers of her generation, and it is a shame that popular mainstream cinema has served her so poorly; despite great work in films like Queen of Katwe, her most prominent work since 12 Years a Slave remains voice-over work in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and The Jungle Book. Us trusts Nyong’o to carry the film as both protagonist and antagonist, and it’s a shrewd decision. It is revealing that Red is the only duplicate afforded the luxury of a voice; Nyong’o cleverly pushes the character into the realm of the uncanny, through both movement and articulation. It is a fantastic performance.

Us is an impressive sophomoric effort from Peele, even if it doesn’t quite match the impact of Get Out. It solidifies Peele’s status as one of the most vital directors working in mainstream contemporary cinema, and one with no shortage of breathtakingly bold ideas.

2 Responses

  1. Peele certainly knows what he’s about. The opening slow zoom on the 1986 TV moves past VHS cassettes of “C.H.U.D.” and “The Goonies”, basically giving the plot away. Tons of little visual homages to other horror movies like “The Birds” and “The Shining”, and one character yells “Get out!”.

    I also like how Peele inverts the standard black/white divide of horror movies, where the white person is the hero and the black person is the victim. Here, the black hero family has an unthinking trust in the police (who never do answer that 911 call), and the white victim family are heard to play a notorious cut from NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” on their Amazon Echo.

    The escalator going down with none going back up is one of the more disturbing images. Reminds me of the down-only elevators in the red lobby in the last episode of “Ashes to Ashes” …

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