Monday, May 20, 2024

‘Us’ Reveals the Horror Within Us

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Jordan Peele’s Us is a thrilling and meticulously crafted horror film. Daring in its inventiveness and refreshing in its matter of fact tone, at all times it shrouds us in a fog of dread. I should also mention it’s a blast and a half to boot.

One could argue Us feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode but for me, that’s a feature, not a bug. Us has an incredible sense of self and style. It is a story made up of a dash of fairy tale mixed with a commentary on the nature of humanity. Of all the genres, horror is the one most ripe for modern commentary. Not just because the world is a terrifying place. But because we tend to suspend our disbelief with horror more than most genres, including comic book movies.

Peele is obviously a fan of the genre and revels in both the schlock as well as the artistic aspects of the genre. Jump scares and fake-outs are mixed with a rich score and a vibrant camera work. Mixed together the result is a potent and sly movie designed to make you squirm and giggle.

Beneath it, all the doppelgangers and fairy tale logic is Peele poking at the notion of the American dream. More importantly what we can lose in pursuit of the said dream. The Wilsons are a middle-class family with designs for upper-class status. It’s clear Gabe (Winston Duke) views his friendship with, Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker), less as a friendship and more as a measuring stick.

The Wilson’s are spending the summer at Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) mother’s cabin. Unlike Gabe, Adelaide is not interested in the Tylers—either as friends or class role models. While at the beach, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) drunkenly tries to bond with Adelaide. She ignores Kitty as she is more keen on keeping an eye on her children than the Tyler matriarch.

Peele’s script deftly draws his characters through how they talk and what they say to each other. Us opens with Adelaide as a child experiencing a traumatic event in a funhouse one dark and stormy night. It is Adelaide’s reluctance to go back to the beach against Gabe’s insistence which tells us though while married there is much Gabe does not know about his wife. It also tells us that Adelaide has either buried the incident or refuses to talk about it. Either way, the simplicity of character exposition is both refreshing and impressive.

Equally impressive is the “twist”. Because Us is a horror film and because the marketing for the film has gone out of its way to reveal as little as possible, it is understandable to think there is a twist. Many people I’ve talked to before writing this review have confided to me that they saw the twist coming. So did I. None of this matters because it’s obvious that Peele wanted you to see the twist. I would argue it’s not so much a twist but a reveal. It is Peele’s way of guiding us to the main thrust of the movie and a large part of what makes Us so remarkable. It has no monsters. No villains.

For you see, the *SPOILER AHEAD* twist is that Adelaide is the doppelganger and that Red (the doppelganger) is the “real” Adelaide. By going down this path, Peele has made a truly unsettling horror film rooted firmly in our empathy. It is such a simple and straightforward conceit it’s easy to ignore it and invent some deeper more convoluted thesis on identity or Peele’s thought on the collective conscious. I must confess, I know this because I thought these things before slapping my head after realizing what a pompous ass I was being.

Not to say themes of identity or collective consciousness is not woven into the fabric of Us—they are. But those themes are tertiary to what Peele is aiming at what is humanity. After all, when the red suits show up to the Wilson’s cabin late at night we are firmly on the Wilson’s side.

But after breaking in and cornering them, Red tells her story. Backlit by a raging fire, Red tells a tragic, heartbreaking, toe-curling tale of her and her family’s life. It is a story reminiscent of fables and folklore, which in of themselves more truthful than actual stories if only because they capture the essence of humanity and cast them in broad conceivable and understandable strokes.

But since we know the “twist”, the scene takes on a new horror. The horror of realizing no one is wrong and no one is right. Indeed when we learn where Red and her family have spent their lives, the moral greyness becomes even murkier. Peele’s sharp-witted script shows its daggers when Adelaide demands to know who Red and her kin are. “We are…Americans.”

Nyong’o and Duke are immaculate as they have the difficult task of playing two shadow versions of the same character. They are so good in fact that often times I had to remind myself the doppelganger versions were the same actor. Yes, it is clearly the same person, but they manage the dark alchemy of making us forget what we are seeing.

Gabe and Adelaide have two kids, Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). Jason loves magic and Zora is a track star who doesn’t want to do track anymore. Both are forced to use their passions to survive. Alex and Joseph have a naturalness about them most actors take years to perfect.

In an odd way, it is the key to the success of Us. Peele’s tone is a sort of matter of fact style. Us is pitch perfect and nimbly paced with a grounded reality tethering the whole thing together. All of this is not to say Peele makes his characters laconic or even unimpressed with the hellish reality unfolding before them. No, what Peele does is allow his characters to behave realistically without going over the top. In other words, the performances and mood of the movie are one of observation.

Nyong’o’s Adelaide and Red are such complex and fully realized characters, it’s easy to miss the extraordinary amount of work she is doing and making it seem like nothing. It goes beyond how she stands or talks and ventures into her eyes and syncopated speech pattern. It’s one thing to be able to talk differently but it’s another to do in such a way in which it seems totally and wholly natural.

Michael Abel’s score underscores the mood while also intensifying the snowballing terror. But most of all it adds to the fun! Horror movies are supposed to be fun and Peele seems hell-bent on making them so. Abel’s score plays with us, warns us, and manipulates us in all the ways a score should. The discovery of the doppelganger’s underground with Abel’s music becomes an elegy of sadness and deep anxiety.

The framing and camera work by Mike Gioulakis evokes a nightmarish quality. Shadows haunt the edges of the frames hinting at the Doppelganger’s nature as well as mining our primitive, very human, fear of the dark. Gioulakis frames Us like a nightmare utilizing dream logic and the feeling of being off-kilter without ever leaving us awash in surrealism. The camera heightens the tension by merely alluding to the foreboding tension humming through every scene.

Peele’s Us will undoubtedly be unfairly compared to Get Out. To some degree, this is unavoidable but sad. Orson Welles spent his life trying to live up to Citizen Kane. As a result, his filmography is largely ignored by both casual and dedicated film buffs alike. By chaining Peele forever to his first feature we risk the very real danger of ignoring a lifetime of self-discovery and evolving tastes and style. While both are horror films they are two different horror films.

Us is a slick, deeply fun, and wry witted horror film steeped in Peele’s twisted sensibilities. Alive with tongue in cheek as well as breathtaking imagery, Us, draws us in into its world-both of them. I can’t wait to see it again.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

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