By Preston Wilder
I assume ‘Us’ also means ‘US’, though not in the highly specific way of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning debut Get Out. “Who are you people?” the monsters are asked at one point, and reply: “We’re Americans” – but the subtext isn’t totally clear, except in the sense of a (literal) underclass becoming “untethered”. It’s like Peele felt an obligation to be political after his zeitgeist-defining debut, even though his mind was on other things.
Not that it matters, necessarily. Vox Lux, another of this week’s new releases, is also ‘about’ America (the two films have more in common: both play ethereal choral music over the opening credits, and Celeste’s dream of clones who ‘didn’t make it’ in Vox Lux is strikingly similar to the plot here) – but Vox Lux ultimately works as potent cinema, not political lecture, and the same is true of Us. There are images and scenes in this horror thriller – like the quarter-hour or so beginning with the line “There’s a family in our driveway” – that will be replayed for as long as people watch horror thrillers, indeed I can see it becoming a major cult movie (which is usually the fate of flawed films with haunting bits). Right now, however, we’re trying to be ‘objective’ – and it must be said, objectively, that the film is patchy. Its imaginative force is undeniable, but connective tissue isn’t always there.
This is basically a film with four sections: sections 2 and 4 are unforgettable, 1 and 3 are… not as good. The initial build-up is flat, not really capturing the sense of a “black cloud” coming closer and closer – yet even this weak opening act contains a magnificent prologue, in which young Adelaide Wilson (played as an adult by Lupita Nyong’o) visits an amusement park with her parents on a summer’s night in 1986. She takes in the motley crowd around her – a couple kissing, a sinister man with a sign reading ‘Jeremiah 11:11’ – then wanders off, going down to the beach. A thunderstorm rumbles in the distance, soon bringing rain as the little girl walks into a funhouse whose sign invites her to ‘Find Yourself’. Inside there’s a hall of mirrors – and, suddenly, a mirror whose reflection seems to be already there, spookily still as our heroine backs closer to the mirror. The girl turns. Her eyes grow wide. Cut to credits.
I’ll try not to spoil what happens next – but it’s no big secret that Adelaide and her family (husband Gabe, teenage daughter Zora, slightly on-the-spectrum son Jason) are accosted by their own doppelgangers, a family clad in red dungarees and armed with golden scissors. The hook is clever, its development less so. Most significantly, the intruders are ‘Us’ only in appearance. They don’t embody our heroes’ secret fears and desires, like (say) the human copies in Solaris. They don’t represent an alternative life path which the Wilsons might once have taken (though they are a kind of guilt trip, representing life without the privilege the family take for granted). They don’t think or behave like Adelaide and her family – a scenario which might’ve been richer and might also, in practical plot terms, have provided a useful weapon with which to fight them. They’re creepy, unresponsive, close to sub-human. They’re Us, but they’re actually Other. It’s a bit like ‘Jeremiah 11:11’, which I thought might offer some hidden theme (it recurs later) but turns out, once Googled, to be unhelpfully blunt: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape”. Yeah, thanks for that.
There’s a lot of evil (and violence) in this movie, and not much in the way of escape – though the plot winds through various moods and tempers, adding touches of grotesque comedy at one point (and at least one gratuitously nasty shot, scored to ‘Good Vibrations’). Us, above all, displays a particular side of Jordan Peele. Get Out, though endlessly imaginative, was acclaimed first and foremost as a writer’s triumph; even those who feted Peele for his tight, layered script (the film’s only Oscar) may have wondered about his actual skills as a filmmaker – and the follow-up seems designed to prove his chops as a purely visual director, especially in the fourth ‘section’ which employs cross-cutting and rhyming images to sensational effect and, just in terms of rhythm and momentum, is among the most exhilarating things you’ll see all year.
Us gives the impression of a young director in a hurry (he’s not that young; he turned 40 last month), packing his new film with a lifetime’s worth of vivid cinematic ideas without really pausing too long to orchestrate the parts into a whole. The result is alternately stunning and sloppy, and as close to a horror masterpiece as a not-quite-successful film can get. It’s about America too, probably.
DIRECTED BY Jordan Peele
STARRING Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss
US 2019 116 mins