Tuesday 2 April 2019

US (USA 2019: Dir Jordan Peele)

Jordan Peele may well have been frustrated by some critics who maintained, despite his protestations, that his debut movie Get Out was a kind of horror film, but they had a point; the movie hopped around genres, refusing to be classified, and its politics may have prevented it from being regarded as a straightforward fright flick.

For his latest, Us, he's gone and done it again, making a movie which splices up genres, fusing humour with frights and some acerbic political observations. But oh my is it a horror movie.

The film introduces us to the Wilson family, well to do, and very respectable; the kind of affluent family popularly espoused as model citizens. Comprising mum and dad, Adelaide ( Lupita Nyong'o) and Gabe (Winston Duke), and daughter and son Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), they're on holiday in Santa Cruz, California, as are their similarly entitled friends Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). But Adelaide is nervous; she had a disturbing childhood experience at a beachside funhouse in the same area, where she saw a doppelganger of her younger self, which was so shocking it rendered her briefly mute and left her deeply traumatised. She's not keen to return.

Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Adelaide confesses her childhood experience to husband Gabe. But before they can pack and leave a family gather on the drive to their house and force entry. They are red garbed doppelgangers of the Wilson household, an inverse copy of each member of the family, and largely mute except for Adelaide's double, who goes by the name of Red. When asked who they are and why they're here, Red answers in a hoarse, croaky voice: "We are Americans."

And it is this setup - with the doubles of the Wilson family trapping and tormenting their entitled counterparts, that provides most of Us's action. It's not hard to see the political subtext here - the dopplers call themselves 'the tethered' (there's a nod to 1980s charity 'Hands Across America' here and a final shot payoff which ties straight back to this poverty awareness initiative) and their rise from the subterranean tunnels in which they have lain undiscovered is a neat shorthand for the downtrodden of Trump's America (yes, the title is meant to be read both ways).

Us was apparently directly influenced by 'Mirror Image,' an episode of the TV series The Twilight Zone - which tellingly Peele is currently reviving for the small (er) screen; the movie conjures memories of the 1956 post McCarthy sci fi movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and its even more socially uncomfortable 1978 Philip Kaufman remake). It also recalls the comic book world of Bizarro, from 1961, in which the opponents of Superman are revealed to live in a mirror image world where the values and mores of Superman's white America are inverted.

The stars of this film are both women: Lupita Nyong'o is very believable as Adelaide and in Red creates a character that is both horrific and sympathetic. Similarly 13 year old Shahadi Wright Joseph, playing Zora and her tethered double Umbrae, effectively creates separate identities - respectively innocent and menacing. Interestingly while both these characters' dopplers are sprightly and resourceful, Gabe's 'tether' Abraham is a grunting, feckless fool.

Peele's film seems both acres away from his more playful debut and yet at times rather similar (the payoff explanation of  'the tethered' is a kind of re-run of Get Out). Us is by far the more dystopian work; he has tapped into a very 1970s vibe, which uses the concept of a seemingly likeable threatened suburban family where the tables are turned, asking the audience who are the real villains of the piece? It has echoes of Romero's The Crazies in its focused small town violence. While its two hour length and a rather Cabin in the Woods final reel explanation blows the tension somewhat (and a twist that doesn't so much make you re-evaluate the movie as cry 'huh'?), Peele is clearly a very interesting filmmaker, and both his features would make many more experienced horror directors hang their heads in shame. Recommended.

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