We shouldn’t be shocked or surprised with Jordan Peele, Us and its current Box Office success. After Get Out (including his Oscar-winning award for Original Screenplay), Peele has continued to push the boundary between art and cultural relevancy, using horror as a delivery mechanism.
You could trace back Peele’s love of horror to his Key & Peele days with skits like Flicker, The Ultimate Cock Blocker and The Telemarketer. Strip away the comedic element (I know, it’s hard to do so when you’re crying with laughter), but as one half of the excellent duo, they perfected a formula, taking a typical scenario before it escalates into an intense and surreal conclusion. Subconsciously or consciously, the jokes have shaped the growth in Peele’s work. Get Out was the cinematic and Oscar-winning starting point, but Us is the culmination of that evolution. Challenging horror conventions and placing people of colour in the forefront, Peele focuses more on the psychological elements of fear (based on racial, societal and political motivations), instead of the long-held tradition of blood, guts and novelty jump scares.
There is no doubt that Jordan Peele has elevated to ‘event director’ status. As soon as you hear his name, you’re already pressing F5 on your keyboard as if your life depended on it. His cerebral take on cinema shares the same quality as Christopher Nolan (think Inception or its closest associate The Prestige) as a cathartic engagement that benefits from multiple watches. Bold statement incoming, but two films under his belt and there is a confidence and excitement which positions him clearly as a new auteur of cinema.
“They look exactly like us. They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won’t stop until they kill us… or we kill them.” – Adelaide Wilson
When you begin to grasp the reality of what Us signifies, it’s a heart-pumping, pitch-perfect and mind-blowing experience.
The idea of doppelgängers or doubles is nothing new in popular culture, but we’re equally fascinated by it. Whether its Kubrick’s The Shining, Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Richard Ayoade’s The Double (based on the Dostoevsky novella) or even its biggest influence The Twilight Zone, we enjoy their functions as mechanisms for chaos. We’re used to ‘fear’ as an abstract model where it takes the form of a monster (e.g. Freddie Kruger) that we naturally forget that ‘man is the cruellest animal’. Us is about duality and mirror images, shaped by human (possibly government) intervention where wickedness and ‘playing God’ leads to unaccountable consequences. We are ‘our own worst enemy’, and Us examines it as a primal response (aka survival of the fittest), facing it as a Bible-fearing judgement (Jeremiah 11:11) but never indulging in a pressure to forcibly stop, handhold and explain everything. Figuratively, Us is the embodiment of ‘you reap what you sow’.
But striking a deeper level of self-meaning, Us can also be viewed as a mental investigation. When Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) decides to quit running, giving up the future potential of the Olympics or Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) suggesting she could have been a movie star instead of raising her dysfunctional family, it’s inclusion is reminiscent of the narratives we perceptively tell ourselves to rationalise life experiences. It can be thought of as a barrier that stops us from reaching our full potential.
That rationalisation speaks volumes about the world we create. Think of it in the instances of the Brett Kavanaugh case and his induction into the Supreme Court. His staunch defenders commented on his glowing reputation and his use of calendars (*roll eyes*) as a validation of support. Or think of it in the case of Hulu’s Fyre Fraud documentary where Billy McFarland is described as a visionary, an exemplar to the industry despite the utter shadiness of his practices. What they failed to understand or acknowledge is that we can readily present different versions of ourselves. You can be ‘good’ in someone’s eyes but be completely abhorrent to another. On a larger scale, the inclusion of Michael Jackson (with the Thriller t-shirt) showcases how duality and identity can deepen within popular culture, and it’s legacy. Whether we concoct our own realities which seclude, isolates or re-imagines the narrative, the frightening aspect that Us brings to the table is that The Tethered are not bound by those rules. Their opposites revel in their mirrored talents as part of the uprising. Us exploits it as a fear. We can’t outrun or sugarcoat the past. We are forced to confront it.
The notion crazily extends to the behavioural characteristics of their shadows. Gabe (Winston Duke) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) are stripped to Neanderthal, caveman representations, measured by their physicality and animistic brute strength, right down to their ‘wolfpack’ calls into the night. Zora’s twin has a permanent smile on her face (born laughing), and whether it is a direct connection or not, I saw it as a parallel commentary to gender stereotypes and how girls/women are told they should ‘smile more’ (think of the recent abuse Brie Larson had with Captain Marvel).
Jordan Peele’s Us is a multi-layered conversation with its audience, and depending on your reaction, universally, it’s troubling, uncomfortable and unnerving in its analogy. Baring in mind there are no right or wrong answers, it’s always consciously aware of its surroundings, right down to its Omen-esque soundtrack to the geek treasure trove of pop culture references and popular music (I can never listen to Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys in the same way again).
Appealing on a social and political level, Us takes great care and attention to highlight the world we take for granted. Zora makes a great comment about fluoride in the water, and yet her family ignores it. Whether it’s the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or climate change, it recognises how we don’t pay enough attention. We seem to react when it is too late at the point of no return. If you want a genuine test of our failure to pay attention, just look at the posters and the trailer for Us – everything was hidden in plain sight!
The arguments are subtle, but it is a reflection of our social classes. In a fractured, neglected and isolated society where there’s a clear rich and poor divide, Us has a mirrored juxtaposed where the ‘upper class’ have all the privileges, wealth, food and benefits versus the subterranean ‘lower class’ who live in poverty and abandonment. In popular literature, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities best enforces this concept. Reality wise, you can see the divisive divisions in our political systems in regards to Trump in the United States and Republican policies or Brexit in the United Kingdom. But Us (taking no prisoners in its growing revelation) forces us to take a deep, cathartic look at how we identify ourselves.
The ‘Hands Across America’ campaign which Us heavily borrows from taps into the idea of unity and inclusion to solve a crisis, and yet it’s a principle that is not followed through or practised nearly enough. Similar to my review of Get Out and its theme of cultural appropriation, the same principle is evoked – we’re happy to take what we want but refuse to engage in the real issues at hand, failing to practice what we’re preaching. Taking a page out of history, the campaign itself had similar issues, from isolated, ‘not involved’ states, broken chains across state lines to counter movements and protests where even actor Tom Selleck led a ‘Hands Across Hawaii’ because ‘Hawaiians are Americans too!’
As eerie as the connections are, the fact the campaign didn’t achieve its sentiment goal illustrates an above surface, broken system which their doppelgänger counterparts have perfected below ground as an organised movement as an oppressed society. Politically, when the tethered regard themselves as ‘Americans’ (a playful inclusion on the film’s title), they’re signifying their organised right to existence As they find their voice (as demonstrated by Kitty’s double and her silent scream into the void), they violently silence others by removing their power.
If anything, Jordan Peele establishes Us as a dramatic wake-up call. It’s overwhelming to see that ‘bigger picture’ concept, but he entertainingly justifies it as a brutal assessment of the human condition. The Tethered (on the surface) are the existential threat, but Peele builds enough duality and empathy to suggest there is no such thing as a black and white case.
“Be careful!” – Red
Horror movies have been prone to stereotyping and gimmicks. For ethnic minorities, their roles lack development, reducing their value as a type, only to fulfil the practical endgame of being ‘first to die’ (or dying before the end of the movie), in comparison to their white counterparts who are seen as heroic and survivors for outsmarting their tormentors. The problem with this long-held view is that we rob ourselves of voices and cultures expressed through a dynamic and complex human being. As most of us are educated through our ‘digital parents’ (aka film and TV), it reinforces a clichéd image and formulaic structure where power is looked above rather than within.
That’s why I’m not bothered by Peele’s recent comments about working predominantly with black actors. When Hollywood has been steeped in systemic issues regarding their lack of diversity or its awkward portrayal which promotes stereotyping (they’re slowly awakening from their slumber), it makes sense that Peele is concentrating on opportunities for actors who are overlooked, disregarded or ignored from the conversation. He is living by the philosophy Us dictates, refusing to abandon or leave behind the generation that will be undoubtedly be inspired by its visible representation.
The dynamic partnership he has with Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide/Red is a fully-realised human being full of complexities, freedom of expression and empowerment. It’s an outstanding performance that ranks as a career best, but most importantly (because of how layered its characterisation), her performance is a counter-culture to those familiar horror tropes.
Lupita captures nuance in her performance, tackling childhood trauma and how women work through it despite ‘suffering in silence’ (which takes on a double meaning). Adelaide grows into an authoritative control to protect her family (contrast that to Gabe’s use of a baseball bat and an intimidating deeper voice) as protection). Red (along with her voice and ‘cockroach’ style movement) organises a revolution! Their experiences draw upon the nature vs nurture themes that run throughout, drawing similar parallels to the 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers. Us brilliantly re-evaluates the ‘final girl’ trope that exists in the medium as a shifting perspective. Survival is in the eye of the beholder and not something that is immediately assumed or granted, which makes the ending that much potent.
Some may view its end as predictable, but that is beside the point. The editing and cinematography journey showcases a cognitive and tonal use of vibrant colour palettes and specific camera framing. It finds its magic in the subtlety, delicately building enough tension to care about its subjects to underpin that strong direction.
Is Us better than Get Out? Personally, that would be a subjective argument. Us arguably has a larger canvas for exploration, but both films share clear parallels that delve into a reflective social consciousness. Peele’s creative mindset forces us to examine an uncomfortable truth that’s grounded in a relatable reality. They’re complimentary pieces ripe for analysis and what Peele does so well is invite the audience into that headspace where our engaged participation acts as the film’s validation. Us has that in abundance, drenched in subtext.
What Us demonstrates is that Jordan Peele is not a one-hit wonder. It’s easy to compare him to cinematic greats like Hitchcock or Kubrick, but he’s already established that he is in a league of his own. Us is worthy of my highest recommendation and easily one of the best films of 2019.
Also, Jordan Peele has sorted out what I’m wearing for Halloween this year!