"Therefore, thus says the Lord, ‘Behold I am bringing disaster on them which they will not be able to escape; though they will cry to Me, yet I will not listen to them.’”
Early in writer-director Jordan Peele’s new thriller, “Us,” we follow a young girl as she navigates a boardwalk carnival with her parents, the family oddly keeping a near-geometric distance from one another. After winning a T-shirt imaged with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” she is seemingly influenced by some unseen force and begins to wander away from her inattentive parents.
She passes a homeless man holding a makeshift cardboard sign inked with the words “Jeremiah 11:11,” the very same Biblical passage that opens this review, a passage that acts as a prophetic warning for what is to come.
She ventures out onto the Santa Cruz beach where she — taking notice to the approaching storm clouds as lightning and thunder gently fracture the night air — decides to enter a nearby funhouse with the words “Find Yourself” above the entrance.
The little girl enters. The storm steals the lights away. And she finds herself.
With his sophomore film, Peele returns once again to the horror genre, two years after his highly successful directorial debut “Get Out,” a sociopolitical thriller tinged with racially-charged themes and psychological drama.
Before the remodeling of his career into that of the macabre, Peele dabbled in comedy with his friend and collaborator Keegan-Michael Key in the self-titled sketch comedy “Key and Peele.” Traces of horror can be found in Key and Peele’s show, yet it is always overcome by comedy — two narrative genres that are not as different as you’d think. Both aim to exploit the audience through physical reactions like laughter or screams, and both are governed by the set of rules their respective narratives create.
It is no surprise then that Peele’s pivoting from comedy to horror has been so successful. Yet, as much as he handily maneuvers through the conventions of horror and comedy, Peele, being an African American artist, furnishes his work with replete, sometimes subversive, sociopolitical motifs that predominantly speak to the African American condition. Indeed, the film opens with text advising the audience of the existence of abandoned networks of tunnels, subways and mine shafts underneath America’s cities, a proxy, in part, on the Underground Railroad.
“Get Out” explores racial issues and commonplace stereotypes while “Us” probes themes in classism and divides in all hierarchal-like structures, here literalized in the form of doppelgängers, mirrored imagery and symmetrical symbolism — all centralized around Peele’s reappropriation of the home-invasion movie. One could even call this a revisionist zombie film, given the apocalyptic implication, or a cinematic survey of insurgency and revolutionaries.
The film’s central family, the Wilsons, encounter their other selves in murderous, vengeful people who — while wearing red jumpsuits — physically look exactly like them. Their doubles conduct themselves with rigid stares and vocalize through animalistic growls and broken speech. Clocks and Bible passages read “11:11” while allusions to plastic surgery, spiders, shadows, scissors and paper cutouts of people holding hands represent the film’s study in symmetry and duplication.
Similarly, even the film’s title sports a binary function both in “Us” as an agent for the narrative’s doppelgänger conceit and in Peele’s apparent reference to the sharp bipartisanship at present in the U.S., or us — none the more obvious when the leading villain at one point raspily replies with the phrase “We are American.” What better way to illustrate our nation’s pronounced political divide than through directly dividing the in-film populace?
Peele knows how to deliver the thrills through moody cinematography, and he knows how to employ a bit of laughter in between the shivers. Yet, those pursuits in comedy can sometimes undermine the dread, replacing some deep-seated uneasiness for some unwanted relief.
Likewise, Peele’s storytelling begins to trip and fall on its own scissors when he begins to explain the plot, mythology and character origins in the film’s final act. While the logistics of the film’s world may bother some, doubts instead arise out of Peele’s compulsion to explain nearly everything that happens. A heavier sense of ambiguity would have better served the mystery. However, the scissors did not horribly pierce a vital organ. Instead, it merely pierced the shoulder. A painful injury to the film undoubtedly, but not an entirely grievous one. Not to mention, the final confrontation is achingly awkward in its choreography.
The cast includes Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex and Elisabeth Moss, all delivering great performances, especially when considering each of them performs two highly dissimilar roles, playing both the heroic and villainous versions of themselves. Nyong’o, along with the rest of the cast, ably shifts between expressions of acute fear to crooked, lethal smiles.
With nods to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and even Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Peele adeptly — albeit with some clumsiness — creates another enticing sociopolitical commentary on American culture, deeply creeping the audience out with an oozing atmosphere doused in cold sweat as he does it.
Now, we just have to wait for the onslaught of red jumpsuit trick-or-treaters this Halloween. 6.7/10