[*Spoilers for Us below!!]
Jordan Peele’s new horror movie Us has garnered a fair amount of anticipation, largely due to the phenomenal success and acclaim received by his previous film, Get Out (2017). Us is about a black family named the Wilsons who, on a vacation at their beach house in Santa Cruz, are stalked by murderous doubles. The murderous doubles act inhumanly and move in all sorts of disturbing and interesting ways. The film, like Get Out, turns some familiar conventions on their heads: the main character in all of this is the wife, not the husband, and it’s their white friends (a neighbouring successful family whose members are sent up in all their privileged repulsiveness), who die early on in the film, not the Wilsons.
If I’d have to classify the genre Peele is playing with, I’d say that this is essentially a variation on the zombie film. All of the ‘normal’ people living above ground have a double or a ‘shadow’ living below the ground, the result of a government plan gone awry. These shadows, mentally deficient and resentful through not having souls and having been abandoned, plan an uprising and come above ground, all decked in scarlet red jumpsuits and wielding golden scissors which they use to stab and mutilate their above ground counterparts. The shadows cannot talk, all except one who is Adelaide’s (our main character, played by Lupita Nyong’o) double; they express by emitting animalistic sounds. As in the better zombie films (such as those by George A. Romero), the zombies are skewed reflections of humanity, highlighting our faults, and humanity often comes off looking that much poorer, even while we root for the humans to survive.
Without getting into the various plot twists and mechanics, the question of whether this film lives up to Peele’s acclaim for Get Out must be addressed. I saw the film with two friends – one very much disliked it, the other liked it more than Get Out. The opening night crowd we saw it with seemed to enjoy it very much. I was somewhere in the middle. In terms of the tale’s scope, it is more ambitious than Get Out but that is also its downfall. Get Out was nicely tailored to the person of color’s experience of not feeling comfortable in certain communities and spaces defined and dominated by white people. Its twist came in the middle, strategically placed to shift the narrative from a strange little family gathering to the territory of psychological horror, never losing sight of its commentary about race and what it means to be black in America.
I’ve read one review of Us that claims that the new offering isn’t about race in the same way that Get Out is about race, simply because the people the Wilsons are fighting against, their doppelgangers, are also black. I’ve read other reviews that claim this film is a meditation on privilege, those who have and those that do not, and what one must do in order to have freedom and luxuries. I’ll venture one step further and hazard that Us is not only about race – it’s also about Trump’s America. Even before I walked into the movie, I thought about the possibility that the title ‘Us’ might be a play on ‘U.S.’ – the United States. When the doppelgangers are asked early on in the film who they are and what they want, Adelaide’s doppelganger says ‘We’re Americans.’ The red suits the doppelgangers wear reminded me of the red states and the red MAGA hats. I have no idea what the golden scissors could mean. Cutting social services?
In any case, you could say that the shadows who have been living under the ground are any group or class that has been disenfranchised: the underclass, the underprivileged, the subaltern, etc. In that way, Peele is again making a film that is very contemporary in terms of its social politics. But isn’t that a characteristic of all intelligent horror movies? Peele is not a typical horror director in that though he uses the kinds of movements and music inherent in modern horror movies, his movies don’t feel first and foremost like horror movies. They seem too intellectual or artificial, and perhaps too satirical, to wallow in the company of The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Hostel, etc. This is not a failing – just something I’ve noticed in all of his films starting with Keanu (which employs gang types but doesn’t really feel like a gang film, comedy notwithstanding) and continuing with Get Out (which employs a little science fiction and asks us to stretch our credulity without really feeling like a science fiction film). In a way, he’s like Tarantino whose films have a plastic artificial quality, quite aware that they’re not really like the genre films they pay homage to. Whereas Tarantino employs his style purely for entertainment purposes, Peele uses his films to serve political ends and provide commentary about race in America. That is his hallmark and as a relatively new filmmaker, what makes him fresh, and what he’s still good at. Or… the fact that his films don’t feel native to a given genre might simply be due to the fact that Peele is black and is therefore coming from a different place and set of experiences compared to his white counterparts.
In terms of filmmaking style, Peele is trying to stretch his wings and use a variety of expansive shots, camera movements, and filmmaking techniques that push shooting and montage beyond that in Get Out. These techniques have not coalesced into a signature style and sometimes the pacing and the beats seem a little off but these are minor criticisms. My major criticism is that Peele does not develop rounded characters. Instead, he develops types, he develops scenarios and situations and inserts bits of interesting dialogue – once again, not so different from Tarantino, although nowhere near as stylized.
Part of what’s revolutionary about this movie is just watching a middle class family driving around, just ‘being’, not conforming to an over the top ‘blackness’ that might be expected of them in another movie predominantly featuring black characters. The part I found most difficulty with was the twist/revelation at the end. I won’t spoil it here since it’s already been written about extensively elsewhere. It’s a completely unbelievable twist, and doesn’t make sense in the framework of the storytelling that’s already happened/been set up in the movie. I think this comes out of Peele being more of a situation guy rather than a director/writer who develops characters. I do like his playing with genre for political purposes, though. I’d like it if he picked other genres in the future to skew. Imagine what he’d do with the superhero genre. A Black Panther sequel by him could be something else entirely.