LupitaStuns in Jordan Peele’s Follow-up to Get Out
Director Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort “Us” opens with what initially seems likea random text about how there are thousands of underground tunnels that arecompletely abandoned in the U.S. Lupita Nyong’o’s character, a young Adelaide,is then introduced with her alcoholic father and well-meaning mother at acarnival in Santa Cruz beach. She wanders off, gets lost and ends up at a hallof mirrors labeled “Find Yourself” which right away took me to the famous Key& Peele sketch. Adelaide is walking around the hall of mirrors while whistling“Itsy Bitsy Spider” and is traumatized to find that her reflection remainsturned around as she is facing the mirror. As part of the prologue, there is ashot of young Adelaide watching a commercial for the real and bizarre 1986Hands Across America, a charity benefit campaign to fight poverty and hunger,on an old television set. Peele sets up the perfect prologue that intrigues andgets the audience excited for the rest of the movie which is importantly set inpresent day U.S.
The adult Adelaide returns to her grandmother’ssummer house in Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their twochildren (Jason and Zora). Peele’s elevator pitch for the film is that youngAdelaide’s trauma in the hall of mirrors returns to haunt adult Adelaide, andthat trauma (personified) has a family. The trailer shows as much in that thereis a doppelganger family at their doorstep with ill intensions. Peele describeshis fascination and fear of doppelgangers; the idea of a double that is almostidentical is always unsettling. He credits an old Twilight Zone, a show Peele is rebooting as producer, episode wherea lady is startled when she sees herself at a bus stop as the first bit ofinspiration for Us. But there arecountless movies from different genres that the film harkens back to thatinvolve doubles of some sort. When Peele discussed The Twilight Zone episode“Mirror Image”, I was reminded of TheDouble Life of Vernoique by the legendary Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski in which our lead character Weronika travels toa new town where she sees her exact look-alike (Veronique) taking photographsof riots. This film does not make any sense on the page, but the way the storyis told keeps the audience engaged in the lives of the two doppelgangers thatare mysteriously connected. This is also the case in Us where it requires a bigger leap of faith than usual as with anyhorror film, but once you’re on the movie’s wavelength it does keep theaudience engaged.
The doppelganger family in Us refer to themselves as “The Tethered” and they are led by Red(Lupita’s doppelganger) who speaks with a broken windpipe induced voice and itis very creepy and haunting. Red tells a cautionary, vague tale about theirworld and how they came to be, and she calls the whole event of confrontingthemselves “The Untethering”. The most important line of the film is whenAdelaide asks Red who they are, and Red replies by saying “We’re Americans.” Allof this takes place in its grounded first act and it is still very much openended and unpredictable as to what the rest of the movie entails. Peele alsopays homage to Haneke's Funny Games andmakes a funny reference to the now dated HomeAlone during the home invasion scenes. To reveal anything further would becriminal, since this movie is best experienced completely cold. Us is beaming with lots of ideas whichis what makes it stand out in the horror genre, because this is definitively ahorror movie. His debut, Get Out, wasmurkier in its presentation and it subverted the audience’s perception of thehorror genre. The great thing about Horror is that it doesn't really need to beabout anything above its surface level plot, but it is always a great surprise whenthere is an important commentary or message (apparent or not).
Duality is the major theme of the movie andthere is a lot of imagery and symbolism that reaffirms this theme whether it bethe recurring clock at 11:11, the homeless man carrying a Jeremiah 11:11cardboard sign, and in an earlier scene the score of a football game Gabe iswatching is announced to be 11-11. The scissors, which are the choice of weaponfor the doppelganger family, represent duality/symmetry. Peele is really honinghis craft and he loves throwing Easter eggs and foreshadowing events to comewhich are even more apparent on a second watch. Us weaves a lot of threads throughout the movie, and I appreciatedthe layered and detailed storytelling. On a second viewing however, there werestill some things that didn’t work and further confirmed my reservations frommy first viewing. There are plot points that go untied or are unsatisfactorilyanswered, and the rules the movie establishes for its world are loose andinconsistent. But this is all forgivable and didn’t take me out of it because Igladly suspended my disbeliefs. It is such an ambitious and fun movie with lotsof ideas and it asks its audience to put their thinking caps on while stillworking on an entertainment level.
Another quality that Jordan Peele has (givenhis sketch comedy background) is his impeccable comedic timing which hedisplayed in Get Out through Rod, theTSA agent. Rod would interrupt the tense plot every now and then to address theaudience’s grievances and provide some comic relief. Most of the humor in Us rests on Gabe’s shoulder who playsthe corny Dad making situational jokes as terror ensues, and it works for themost part. On an interview with Simon Mayo on the Kermode & Mayo podcast,Jordan Peele explains his personal choice of inserting comedy into his horroras coming from a place of compassion for the audience. Since the movie is adark roller coaster, the humor is there to make the audience feel at ease andto remind them that they are having a great time. The comedy is scarce comparedto the horror, but one of the best parts of the movie is the choice of musicwhich in itself is at times comedic. In one scene amidst utter horror and gore,a popular song is unintentionally opened by one of the characters and itshouldn’t be funny, but it is absolutely brilliant. I also loved the usage ofone of my favorite songs “Les Fleurs” by Minnie Riperton during the epiloguewith an iconic shot that alludes to the Hands Across America campaign.
Get Outtapped into the fear of everyday, passive-aggressive racism solely focused onthe black experience in the U.S. which is quite literally uttered in the movieby a Japanese character. The manner in which the story was told invoked thesame themes as some of my favorite wacky and bizarre sci-fi and horror filmswith the added layer of the racial perspective that drives the centralnarrative. Get Out is a stronger,more cohesive movie, but Us is moreof a popcorn horror movie that works on its basic premise. There is definitelya social commentary to be found in Us withinits bonkers plot. It touches on the class system and the disenfranchised in America(the title can also be read as U.S.), but unlike Get Out it is less clear cut and there is plenty left forinterpretation. At its simplest, Peele reminds us that sometimes the scariestthings can be found within ourselves. The buzz surrounding Lupita Nyong’o iswell earned as this is her first headlining role with the tricky task of playingtwo distinct characters and she is the main reason the movie doesn’t fallapart; she is absolutely terrific. The actors playing the kids are alsofantastic, and Elizabeth Moss who is underutilized in the film gets her time toshine and I adored her scenes. I wouldn’t mind if Jordan Peele kept on makingmore horror films, because the majority of the current, popular horror movies arelacking in originality and ideas which Peele has in abundance. (A-)