IT ENDS WITH A DOUBLE YOU
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss
Review: David Stephens
As far as future horror auteurs went, a couple of years ago who would have thought that U.S. TV comedy held the key to the future? But John Krasinski proved his worth with “A Quiet Place”, and Jordan Peele did more than that with the excellent “Get Out” in 2017. A canny and efficient horror that exploited fears of intimate betrayal and loss of identity, seasoned with some dark humour and some incisive commentary about casual racism still being inherent in a liberal society. It earned overwhelmingly positive reviews (some of which led to patronising mainstream critics stating that “horror had grown up”… *rolls eyes in frustration*) and went on to earn a staggering worldwide gross of over $255m from a budget of just $4.5m! So it was no wonder that Peele was basically given ‘carte blanche’ to do whatever projects he wanted. Happily for us the filmmaker stuck with Blumhouse and with our favourite genre. Given a rapturous reception at SXSW at the beginning of March, “Us” was also written by Peele and headlines “Black Panther” actors Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke. As we write this review just after the U.S. (and U.K.) release, the film has already debuted to an American opening of $70m, the third-best total for a horror film after “IT” ($123m in 2017) and “Halloween” ($77m in 2018). Not too shabby… So YGROY checks out our “own worst enemy” at the local multiplex to see if “Us” deserves all that praise.
After an ominous “fact” about America and an unsettling prologue set in 1986, we meet the quintessential perfect family in the Wilsons. Gabe (Duke) is the gruff gentle-giant of a father, embarrassing his kids with Dad-jokes and impulse-buying a motor-boat. Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is the teenage daughter, surgically attached to her I-Phone and putting up with the scare tactics from her annoying little brother Jason (Evan Alex). Holding it all together is Adelaide (Nyong'o), the strong-willed Mother who will do anything for her kids and bonds them all together. They’re on vacation and heading to their holiday home, but when Gabe suggests a day at Santa Cruz beach, Adelaide is strangely resistant to the idea. Not because she’s seen “The Lost Boys”, it’s because of a childhood trauma in the beach-front funhouse that she still hasn’t told her husband about. But that horrible moment seems to be playing out again as four people violently invade their home, and they all look strangely familiar…
It’s unfair to continually compare “Us” with “Get Out”… but try and find a review that doesn’t do that. That’s the problem that must have faced Peele with this “difficult 2nd album” that he produced the movie equivalent of. However, we’re not about to disagree with the general consensus of opinions (or the box office) out there… this is a great offering and a fine achievement that confirms the director as an innovative horror filmmaker. Like his first film, the less you know about what the holy hell is going on, the more you’ll get from it. We won’t spoil any of the surprises in store; suffice to say that “Us” is a multi-layered experience that offers plenty of food for thought. More importantly though the movie also provides some truly frightening and edge-of-the-seat sequences, which showcase what a confident and skilled director Peele has become. He gained the approval of hardcore fans by confidently stating that “Us” was unequivocally a horror film on social media, and he certainly brings plenty of nods and references to the table. How can you not love a mainstream genre film that puts VHS copies of “CHUD” and Steve Martin’s “The Man with Two Brains” in the opening shot? The 1986 prologue even acknowledges the shooting schedule of “The Lost Boys” (“…they're shooting a movie over there by the carousel”).
The best moments of the film echoes movies like “The Strangers” and evil-doppelganger tales like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. But as “Get Out” put its own spin on stuff like “Stepford Wives”, Peele has invented a whole new mythology to support it. Much of it is ambiguous, but there’s enough there to explain everything (even if realism mostly takes a back-seat). The main thing is that it works, and it sticks in your head. This is all the more impressive when about two-thirds of the plot could have been a stock home-invasion or chase-movie. Instead we get some truly effective stalk n’ slash moments that are surprisingly vicious and suspenseful. This helps when you’ve got someone like Nyong’o in the lead, who gives an excellent performance (in both roles), although all the cast are worthy of attention. Whereas “Get Out” had those little moments (the running man, “No. No. No. No.”) to create unease, “Us” has the slightly off-kilter presence of “The Tethered” that gives them a feel of the uncanny-valley; running upright with arms at their side, unblinking stares, and grunts-and-squeals. Aside from looking just like you, they don’t feel like they’re part of the “real world”. It also makes for a multi-layered piece of story-telling. Yes, it can be seen as “just” a story about evil doppelgangers. But under the surface there’s so much more. “Us” can undoubtedly be read as “U.S.” with the States inherent fear of outsiders and those that don’t fit into the accepted norm. (NB: There’s even a version of “The Wall” if you want to read it that way). That can also be applied to the class system or any form of “Them & Us” distinction, with a narrative twist (no spoilers!) suggesting that emotional support and education are the only things that can really separate individuals. And note the clever way that the funhouse goes from Native American to Generic British. Nicely done. Also be prepared for some dark humour and unexpected references to “Home Alone”.
Aside from all of that though, “Us” also just offers a damned good scary experience. The initial home invasion and sudden upscale of the event are very well done. The best is arguably saved for last with a brilliant confrontation choreographed nicely with that creepy remix of the song "I Got 5 on it" by Luniz, which featured heavily in the trailer. If you want to look for issues, it seems a little bit of a shame that the aspect of the-boogeyman-knows-your-thoughts isn’t exploited more heavily (imagine if Michael Myers was psychically connected to you!), and there are ideas and themes that seem to lead nowhere in particular (what’s the deal with the Frisbee and other “coincidences”?). But having said all that, it means that you’re thinking about plot points and theories days after you’ve seen it. Chat rooms and genre sites are already full of chatter and extra twists (where none probably exist), discussing various aspects of the plot. But unlike some productions like “mother!” where analogies swamped the narrative and divided opinions on the way they were integrated into the plot, it still works as a straightforward horror film or an fresh urban legend, and one where you care about the fate of the main characters. Not many films create that type of positive buzz. It’s mature horror with plenty to enjoy and more to think about, and already a genre highlight of the year. It makes you eager to see what Peele may do in the near future, with his take on a revamped version of “The Twilight Zone” next up, along with his role as producer on the “Candyman” reboot and as creator of “Lovecraft Country”. Until then, “Us” is Unquestionably Successful.