Patrick Preziosi on Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ (2019)
Everything comedian-cum-director Jordan Peele has done since 2017’s prescient — and not to mention — majorly successful horror-comedy film Get Out has existed under that very film’s umbrella. Get Out rewarded the viewer who chose to follow every breadcrumb trail it laid down, and fans have been eager to determine the location of the next breadcrumb trail, what it will lead to, and what it will all mean. Despite the sometimes confounding comparison to Hitchcock’s body of work, Peele’s still worthy of such obsession. His newest film, Us, functions best from a place of immersion, of tracking down those references Peele is so adept at only after the film has finished.
Us transcends the lockstep linearity of Get Out in the way it seems to be only growing outwards from even its first few minutes. There’s a title card that tells of countless abandoned tunnels that sit below the United States, a shot of a tube TV playing a 1986 ad for Hands Across America, and then an introductory sequence of a young girl and her parents at the Santa Cruz beachfront, shot with the kind of glossiness that signifies a period setting. In this brief, though important sequence, a young black girl with a luminescent candy apple wanders away from her bickering parents, surveying the amusement park before arriving at the beach, and entering a decrepit funhouse, eerily titled “Find Yourself.” What she experiences in there dictates the rest of this wonderfully slippery film.
To share what happens amongst the hall of mirrors would be to give away the breadcrumb trail; there’s not necessarily anyone “no spoilers!” climax, but rather pockets of important information assembled precariously like dominoes. What can be divulged is that that little girl, Adelaide Wilson (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) –– following years of attempts on behalf of the same bickering parents at combating the subsequent trauma of that night — vnow has a family of her own, who are on their own summer vacation.
This family unit, also consisting of dad Gabe (Winston Duke), older daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex) is one of Peele’s most airtight creations in the film, garnering believability through a humorous, though tender interplay. And having already glided into our good graces, they contrast greatly in the face of their perfectly douchey white counterparts, Kitty and Josh Tyler — replete with foul-mouthed, teenage gymnast twin girls — played all too convincingly by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Within the sometimes thinly developed horror cannon, Peele has proven able to excel at rendering characters who operate symbolically to a great extent, but also ring resoundingly human no matter their narrative purpose.
This bait and switch — of pulling out the rug of dad jokes and sibling rivalries from under the viewer to suddenly entrench the family in a violent home invasion — happens only within the first fourth of the film, and maintains its forward momentum until the very end. As Adelaide, displayed purely in the reflective surface of a window, finally opens up to Gabe about the night at the funhouse, Jason walks in with the bound-to-be-immortalised, “there’s a family in our driveway.” And he’s right, as four figures varying in size stand stoically hand in hand, immune to the shouted threats of Gabe.
The family has come face to face with mirror images of themselves, doppelgängers who communicate in grunts and groans. Think Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). They dress in blood-red jumpsuits, and are violently handy with a pair of scissors. Peele deploys a taut series of sequences, including a virtuosic 360 roving shot of the family being overtaken by their evil twins, turning the beach home into a confiding labyrinth.
That the second invasion plays out in one gruesome fell-swoop, shot from the exterior of a floor-to-ceiling windowed house, establishes Peele as a savvy choreographer, able to render on-screen violence viscerally. Within these two consecutive set-pieces, there’s a concise crash-course in horror cinema, from the suffocating interior spaces of The Shining (1980) to the unswayed (though not invincible!) villain of Halloween (1978), and the splatter of any Giallo film.
The family fight not only their own doubles, but those of every single living person (“We are Americans”, exclaims Adelaide’s double in a crushed-windpipe kind of voice). It’s essentially our own shadows that have risen to reclaim lives we’ve undoubtedly squandered. The Tylers share similar middle-class tendencies with the Wilsons (they can afford both vacations and vacation homes) but they still sit more comfortably above the latter, their own frivolous spending putting pressure on Gabe to do the same; “I knew you’d forget the flare gun” Josh pettily remarks to him, as if to imply trying to keep up with his own excess is a fool’s errand.
When Adelaide then ventures below the funhouse, to the source of the doubles inspired by Shock Corridor (1963), to rescue her kidnapped son (in a performance that both reflects and matches Shelley Duvall’s in The Shining), such crisscrossing divides become all the more apparent, though now knottier as well. An entire society, trapped within our own above ground movements, but never granted any sort of real experience. Emotional complexity dominates as the impossibility of coexisting gives way to violence, though such a purgatorial way of life demands sympathy nonetheless.
The final sequences find Peele indulging in the wondrous possibilities of moviemaking, employing a split-diopter à la De Palma, and crafting a final showdown that plays like a wuxia film; it’s a deserved release from a film that has faithfully trusted the viewer to successfully grapple with the film’s potentially alienating density. Peele can’t be bestowed with a guiding light status only two features in, but with such directorial tics, it’s at least assurance of a commercial director intent on making capital-M Movies.
Us is showing in UK cinemas now.