Thursday, March 21, 2019

Jordan Peele follows 'Get Out' with 'Us'

There's lots of skill on display in this hunk of horror but the result isn't entirely satisfying.

Jordan Peele's eagerly awaited second feature, Us, stands as a sometimes intriguing, sometimes perplexing followup to his brilliant Get Out, a movie that blended horror and biting social observation in ways that shed light on America's long-standing inability to come to grips with issues of race.

Us simultaneously boasts both a broader and narrower focus, serving up an expansive metaphorical cocktail that mixes a variety of themes: the clash between an underclass and the prosperous, the illusion of safety provided by middle-class families and the all-too-human tendency to look for fault everywhere but in ourselves.

Peele tackles all this (and more) within the narrower framework of doppelganger horror in which soulless versions of the main characters attack their more prosperous "betters." This homicidal underclass -- or whatever constellation of possible interpretations Peele wants it to represent -- seeks vengeance.

It immediately should be said that Peele has mastered the techniques of horror, refining them so that he doesn't have to rely on our anticipation of jump scares. Teasingly, he marks his film with ominous signposts. In the film's eerie prologue, a vagrant at an amusement park holds a cardboard sign referring to the biblical verse Jeremiah 11/11.

I'll save you the trouble of looking it up. The quote reads: "Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I am going to bring calamity upon them, and they will not escape. Though they beg for mercy, I will not listen to their cries."

Obviously, Peele has more in mind than simple scares, although it's not always clear what that might be.

In some ways, Us represents a more ambitious effort than its predecessor. Visually bold and beautifully scored by Michael Abels, Us proves as consistently creepy as any recent helping of horror.

The movie also contains a strikingly unsettling performance from Lupita Nyong'o who appears as the mother of an apparently successful American family. Nyong'o also plays her evil counterpart, a near-human creature who speaks with a raspy, growling voice as she helps stage a terrifying home invasion.

The mood of the vacation veers off-kilter from the start: Nyong'o's Adelaide can't help fretting. Her unease results from a childhood incident at a beachfront amusement park in Santa Cruz, the place where the family has begun its vacation.

I won't describe the trauma Adelaide experienced as a child but will tell you that it involves wandering into a fun-house-like attraction called Vision Quest where visitors are invited to find themselves. In this movie, finding oneself doesn't qualify as a cause for celebration.

Just prior to Adelaide going off on her own, her dad had won her a Michael Jackson Thriller T-shirt. Given the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, the T-shirt feels weird, a creepy souvenir.

Nyong'o receives able support from the actors who portray her family: Winston Duke plays Gabe, a husband who quickly proves a failure when it comes to macho posturing. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex work well as the brother and sister of the family. Obviously, all the actors do double duty as their doppelgangers.

Early on, Adelaide's family meets friends at the beach, another family in which Elizabeth Moss plays the mom and Tim Heidecker portrays the insensitive, materialistic father. Cali Sheldon and Noelle Sheldon appear as that family's clueless twin daughters.

Peele has proven himself a master of suggestion, but that doesn't mean Us eliminates gore, bloodshed, and violence. Let's put it this way: The doppelgangers aren't interested in philosophical discussions about what happens when the bestial part of human nature is denied. They wear red jumpsuits and carry golden scissors that aren't intended for sewing projects.

Us isn't devoid of humor but even it's biggest laugh line has arch meaning.

At one point, Gabe asks his evil twin a question: "What are you people?"

The answer -- "We're Americans" -- brims with chilly, satirical echoes.

It's possible -- perhaps even likely -- that Peele overcomplicates things by introducing all manner of allusions and specifically stated explanations. These include underground tunnels that have been constructed all across the US, a reference to a bygone Hands Across America project of 1986 and the introduction of many rabbits. Between Us and The Favourite, it's safe to say that no movie rabbit has faced unemployment within the last several months.

Us can be enjoyed as an effective creepfest, but when it comes to sorting through the movie's various meanings, consternation seems inevitable. The movie's broad themes and specific story developments don't always align, and as thought-provoking as Us can seem, it feels equally confused about what it's asking us to ponder. For me, Us winds up as an obviously skilled but not entirely satisfying endeavor.

1 comment:

Nicholas Alexander said...

Would this be worth seeing even if you're not a horror genre aficionado? Thanks.