Jordan Peele’s Us Brings Laughter, Screams, and Social Critique

Early on in “Us,” Jordan Peele’s second directorial effort, a young girl on the Santa Cruz boardwalk passes a beach bum carrying a cardboard sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11.” These digits appear again and again: on a digital clock, the score of a baseball game, a Black Flag t-shirt. Clearly Peele wants us to notice that this isn’t just the raving of a lunatic but a sign and portent. And what, exactly, does the relevant verse say? In the words of the King James Version, “Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” Chilling stuff.

The film begins in 1986, with young Adelaide’s (Madison Curry) birthday visit to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Bored and unnoticed by her bickering parents, she wanders into a blatantly offensive attraction, “Shaman’s Spirit Quest,” where the stereotyped voice of a Native American elder guides the participant through a cheesy hall of mirrors. Suddenly, the lights flick off, and she notices her reflection isn’t mirroring her movements. It’s her doppelganger. Adelaide runs out, traumatized to the point of silence.

We then cut forward to the present day, as the adult Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) family embarks on a trip to their vacation house in the Santa Cruz mountains. We see their car in an aerial shot, surrounded by dense pine forests, reminiscent of the Torrance family’s drive to the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining” and one of many times Peele pays homage to classic thrillers, far too many to all be covered in this review. Anyone who has spent time driving in those stretches of evergreen forest running along the Pacific Coast from Santa Cruz to Washington will understand the unease; the immense trees, crowding in and blotting out the sun, can feel otherworldly. Peele understands the sense of being swallowed by forested darkness, as did Kubrick; so did David Lynch with his depiction of the looming pines in “Twin Peaks.”

Once at the house, Adelaide struggles to contain her dread. She worries that she’ll again encounter whatever she saw in that house of mirrors. Her husband, the goofy, dad-joke-cracking Gabe (Winston Duke), is sympathetic but doesn’t really understand when she tells him her story. They journey to the beach against Adelaide’s intuition, with their two children, older daughter Zora (Shahadi Joseph Wright) and hyperactive son Jason (Evan Alex). The old house of mirrors is still there, the racist Indian replaced by a figure of Merlin. There’s a scare when Jason momentarily wanders out of sight and Adelaide’s panicked searching on the beach references yet another classic horror movie, “Jaws.”

But the real horror begins that night, back at the house, whose wide windows and open floor plan make it feel sickeningly exposed to the darkness outside. A family appears in the driveway, dark silhouettes framed by the security lights. Gabe’s blustering attempts to scare them out of the driveway quickly turn to panic as the family, clad in matching red jumpsuits, impassively stride towards the door. They get in, of course, and when Adelaide’s family is forced to sit across from them in the living room, we see that these strange people are all twisted doppelgangers of the Wilsons. When Gabe asks, terrified, “who are you?” the mother croaks out “we’re Americans.”

A little on the nose, but this line is where the central political theme of the movie comes in. Without giving away too many plot points, the doppelgangers come from an underground, parallel, society, leading lives of deprivation while their fellow Americans up above enjoy material comforts and happiness. The premise falls apart if you think about the specifics too hard, but it is just believable enough, and more than scary enough, to keep up the suspension of disbelief. The best horror movies often have this trait; it’s as if the boldness of the plot convinces you that the director knows something you don’t, and that this could all be real. By hiding the fact that often, movie plots are not logically airtight, the viewer is left with the fear that the world is not quite as safe and comprehensible as they may believe.

The tension and fear that’s been building in the first act then explodes into slasher violence. The doppelgangers, referred to as Tethered (I won’t explain why) begin to wreak havoc in Santa Cruz. Their weapons of choice are long, wickedly sharp scissors, and Peele does not skimp on the gore. As the Wilsons each try to defeat their evil counterparts and flee the house, they realized that the night’s terror reaches far beyond their home. One might say it’s a cataclysm on a biblical scale.

Peele certainly believes there is some sort of judgement going on, though whether you believe it’s divine or not probably depends on how ticked off you think God is at the world. In more secular terms, the movie could be read as a horrific vision of the class-based “apocalypse” Marx predicted, or America’s racial sins catching up to it, as they did in the Civil War. The director’s decision to keep the film open to many levels of interpretation was a wise one. Movies are a blunt instrument, poorly suited to conveying complex ideas. They simply can’t reach the levels of precision a book or essay can and are most successful when they stick to conveying impressions and experience. “Us,” then, is not a manifesto, but a depiction of how suffering kept out of sight and mind can reach a boiling point and explode.

This movie shows, as “Get Out” did, that Jordan Peele is among the best young directors working today. He likes to say that “every shot must be beautiful,” and that mantra shows even in throwaway, transitional frames, such as in a scene at the beach where the family’s shadows march behind them in an aerial shot. I’ve never seen a director use corners so effectively: every wall and hallway is shot so that we can’t see around it, reminding us that danger lurks everywhere, hidden. The soundtrack, composed by Michael Abels, is appropriately terrifying, and the Californian songs scattered throughout are a nice touch. One scene, in which the Wilsons’ friends are murdered while “Good Vibrations” blasts through their house, reminded me that Brian Wilson (no relation to the film’s protagonists) was descending into insanity when he composed it. The next scene, set in the same house, unfolds to the rage-filled beats of “Fuck Tha Police” as the Wilsons unleash some pain on the Tethered.

While the entire cast does a great job, Nyong’o’s performance is what lifts this movie from good to great. Playing Adelaide and her evil “twin,” Red, she effortlessly shifts between compelling characters who command the screen. Adelaide is frightened, yes, but willing to stab and hack her way through the Tethered to save her family. She’s no screaming Shelley Duvall: when she hears Pluto’s (Jason’s doppelganger) aggrieved yelling as Jason outwits and traps him, she smirkingly says to Red, “I think that’s yours.” As Red, she is by far the scariest character in the movie (although the just-wrong-enough smile of Umbrae, Zorah’s doppelganger, really freaked me out). She struggles to croak out words in a raspy, tortured, voice, but moves with a balletic delicacy that both fascinates and repulses. And Nyong’o shows that Red is more than just a motiveless murder machine. She sees herself as a kind of gruesome messiah, bringing judgement on a world that has wronged her and her family. An Oscar consideration is certainly in the cards for this dual performance.

And make no mistake, this movie is terrifying. I spent a good chunk of the second half hiding behind my notebook from the images on screen; I’ve had no fewer than two nightmares since seeing it two nights ago. But it is more than just scares. It’s a deserving entry into the modern horror canon. Peele is climbing towards the top ranks of American genre directors, and this showcase of his talent plumbs the depths of American society for a new vision of horror.

Featured image courtesy of wikipedia.org

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