Running Time: 116 minutes
Written and directed by: Jordan Peele
Featuring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, and Tim Heidecker
Adelaide Wilson:“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.”
Talk about a great follow up to an amazing debut, Jordan Peele has written, produced and directed one of the great films of 2019 (so far), although I do expect “Us” (2019) to be eclipsed this year as this is going to be a good time for genre movies. What, for me, is fantastic is that this is a good old fashioned genre film that exudes many of the specific tropes that make this genre, horror, one of the best ways to not only view society but to physically see the choices people make in their lives to ether help or hinder others. Peele was half of the great US sketch comedy duo “Key & Peele” (2012 – 2015) along with Keegan Michael-Key who after their big screen movie, the excellent comedy “Keanu” (2016) (which Peele co-wrote) have gone their own way, each doing very different things. Keegan Michael-Key seems to have decided to appear in a variety of films in some roles that are a departure from what we are used to. On the other hand Jordan Peele basically seems to have poured himself into making genre projects that began with the Oscar winning “Get Out” which means he has been onscreen infrequently – but this has paid huge dividends as he has created some truly riveting movies, possibly extending back into the television world with his reboot of the classic anthology show “Twilight Zone” (2019), which we can only hope will be as special. While “Get Out” wore its political and social commentary out in the open, this new movie does something a little different by having not only layers onscreen but within the plot and narrative as well. This is indeed a look at society as a whole as well as race in the post-Obama America, which is still needed now that there has been an open racist in the White House for the past few years.
I have made the point before but the past ten years has been a bonanza for genre movies, especially horror, not only does there seem to be more being produced than ever before, especially with the advent of cheap film making equipment, more quality filmmakers entering the genre as well as more production companies realising there is money to be made, especially with the increase in online streaming services. This is where Jason Blum and his Blumhouse production company has entered the market finding a cost/revenue model that works for them, partnering with a major distribution partner in Universal and not limiting itself to theatrical projects, but also partnering with Netflix. In fact this year alone Blumhouse will be releasing eight movies as well as other projects over other mediums.
“Us” begins in 1986, young Adelaide Thomas vacations with her parents in Santa Cruz. At the beach, Adelaide wanders off and enters a funhouse, where she encounters a doppelgänger of herself in the funhouse’s hall of mirrors. In the present day, a now adult Adelaide heads to her family’s beach house in Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe Wilson and their children, Zora and Jason. On their first evening, a strange family of four appears in the driveway of the beach house. Gabe attempts to intimidate them, but they attack him and break into the home. The Wilsons realize that the four intruders are doppelgängers of themselves, led by Adelaide’s double, Red. Red, the only doppelgänger capable of speech, tells the Wilsons the story of a girl who lives a happy life while her shadow suffers.
With this new film “Us” Peele has constructed something that needs to be deconstructed in order to really appreciate the work he has done on this genre movie, as this is no slap dash follow up. I could not help but feel that Peele is indeed the ‘real deal’ when it comes to becoming a true auteur of the highest calibre, we have seen his like in decades. Even in the opening few minutes of the film, Peele is making statements about the media, the recent past, our recent news as well as how different society was thirty years ago, in the United States especially, but also in the Western World. The first section of the film is set in 1986 at the holiday location of Santa Cruz, where we open on a television advertising the ‘hands across America’ which was set up as a fundraising initiative to raise money for hunger and homelessness. On either side of the TV set are videos from movies of the day such as “The Goonies”(1985), “The Right Stuff” (1983), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and possibly the most important reference for the plot of this new film, “C.H.U.D.” (1984) as well as a host of others that offer some insight into this movie as well as some of Peele’s obvious favourites. There is so much more that could be analysed that it would spoil the film itself but I will mention a few highlights below which are, for me, key to understanding how this film operates as well as how Peele has invested it with meaning from the opening statement to the closing credits.
Firstly the framework which Jordan Peele is operating under is interesting as it is obvious that he has either researched or is himself interested in the sub-culture of the paranormal, as well as abstract theories in the realm of conspiracy theories. “Us” has a statement at the outset that refers to the hollow earth theory, which basically states that there is some sort of world beneath our world where a variety of beings inhabit. Adelaide in the movie talks about coincidences that occur throughout the movie, this is something paranormal people talk about as ‘synchronicity’, which is a Jungian term that holds that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related – Jung used the concept in arguing for the existence of the paranormal. It is no coincidence that Jung is mentioned, as his psychological theories inhabit this movie from top to bottom as they do for almost any genre film or television series. Secondly the cinematic influences are abundant in this film from “The Goonies” to “The Matrix” (1999) to any of the ‘Body Snatcher’ movies to the entire ‘doppelgänger’ sub-genre to a variety of horror as well as comedy movies, but the key is that this has been influenced by them to create something that is wholly original as well as reflective of the times we live in now, both good and bad. An example of this is Adelaide at the beginning of the film wins a t-shirt that has Michael Jackson from his ‘Thriller’ video on it which could not be more relevant than it is today with the controversy surrounding it. This proves that humanity is not an easy thing to talk about at any time, with many people having opinions on Jackson especially after the recent HBO documentary that legitimised the fact that Jackson was a paedophile of one sort or other. I do not think Peele is taking a side, he is simply offering another point of view as well as surmising that we are all complicated people with many faces that we mostly hide, until one or more is revealed to the masses. This is where the duality comes into effect which this film deals with on multiple levels, including but not limited to the idea of tethering which almost everyone is to not only their doppelgängers but also to each other, relationships play an important part in “Us” which is proven throughout. Look at how the two families on vacation are, not only with each other but between their respective tribes, one is black, the Wilsons, one is white, the Tyler’s. They have known each other for some years, they are linked through familiarity and know each other well, but they are not really suited to each other, in fact like the doppelgängers of the story they are tethered with on obviously being better off than the other. In this case just look at the Tyler’s situation they have an expensive modern house, car, boat, clothes, technology and much more. Now look at the Wilson’s they have the same belongings but it is either broken, out of date or not on brand, we see the stark differences when the Wilsons attempt to get assistance from the Tyler’s halfway through the film with some humorous use of voice activated assistance technology. I was curious as to each families politics which is not stated but iu have the feeling that the Tyler’s were Trump supporters and like his Presidency that no matter what they did, everything turned out well for them no matter the mistakes they make, except of the course until they meet their own opposites.
The other element that links into the duality of the film are the rabbits which permeate the narrative, especially towards the end when Adelaide must descend to the underworld where there are innumerable rabbits lurking escaped from their cages. There is a ‘Alice in Wonderland’ where Adelaide is led by a rabbit to a sort of ‘looking glass’ world except this is a warped world that for our main character is not all it seems to her. The rabbits for me are a link to the slavery that African Americans have endured, as the rabbits begin they are caged but when the revelations are made about the doppelgängers we see that they as well as the rabbits are free, or are they as social as well as economic realties’ still keep them controlled, which is not far from where they are in todays modern realities. If there is any proof required of that one need only look at incarceration statistics to see the reality of that. As with the rabbits there is the reoccurrence of a referenced to a Bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11, throughout which like the rabbits hints at something bigger which I will not go into here as there needs to be some surprises for viewers.
From these brief examinations audiences can see there is a lot going on with “Us”, there even more which I will not cover here as it is a treat to view this film to find hanging strings to pull on for yourself, this is obviously a film to go and see as soon as possible.
Of course as much as there is going on within the film there needs to be actors that understand the film they are appearing in as well as their roles and how they fit into the overall narrative, especially one this deep. All of the performances are excellent from the children right up to the adults. Interestingly the actor with the most experience is Elisabeth Moss who appears in a supporting role and who as usual is revelatory in the dual part she plays. However it is Lupita Nyong’o who appearing in her first lead role ever (remember Nyong’o has an Oscar already) as Adelaide in a dual role that is the star as well as the most amazing person in this film, she has been in many supporting parts but talk about a coming out party. Nyong’o plays Adelaide with all the duality that is required as well as playing Red with subtly and scariness that makes me think of some of the best performances in the horror genre ever. The performance at times made me think of Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” (1986) as well as Sissy Spacek in “Carrie” (1976) and Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). If ever a performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination it is Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide/Red.
“Us” for me is easily the film of the year so far; it is extremely well put together from Jordan Peele who has brought together great filmmakers who should all be proud of the film they have produced. The acting talent should all be proud as well as they have constructed characters that are all individualistic and three-dimensional and have the added complexity in that they have to also portray their own doppelgängers. To be honest I could write and write about this film but it should be seen as soon as possible on the big screen, and when it is released on Blu-ray it should be added to any library.