It’s safe to say that the world is currently a bit of a nightmare. Luckily we now have the works of Jordan Peele to help us fully realise the hidden horrors of today’s climate. We haven’t had to wait long for his follow-up to his polemic on the hypocrisies of America’s so-called classless society in Get Out (2017).
Less ground-breaking than his debut film, which steadily rose from word-of-mouth mania to awards darling, his follow-up Us, and not as precise in exactly what it is trying to convey, is no less disturbing.
Peele sets the scene menacingly. Full opening credits are a rarity these days, and Peele’s evokes the classics of John Carpenter in slowly eking out the audience’s sense of dread over a slow lean-out, revealing a disturbing setting of white rabbits in a wall of cages. We are then introduced to a young Adelaide, who goes for a walk on the pier to get away from her squabbling parents in 1980s Santa Cruz (wearing an oversized ‘Thriller’ t-shirt that caused uncomfortable titters in my screening) and comes across a seemingly abandoned house of mirrors. Ignoring all rules that fun fairs are inherently creepy, Adelaide goes in.
Whatever happens in that hall of mirrors has haunted Adelaide all her life, but only truly returns to the surface once again when a now grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her young family return to the seaside resort for a holiday in the sun. A fated trip to the beach brings back painful, buried memories, and Adelaide and her funny but hapless husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are forced to protect their family against an unstoppable clan of their own red jumpsuit-wearing, scissor-wielding doppelgängers.
As both a critique of the Reaganite era of his childhood – where a ‘Hands across America’ stunt would apparently cure all societal ills – and a satire of the fading notion of the American dream, Peele has quickly become the storyteller of the age, unravelling the quietly satisfied privilege of the middle classes and here, he unravels the safety of a financially stable, average American family.
Down the rabbit hole we go then as Adelaide, Gabe and their two children (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph) are terrorised by their near voiceless counterparts. Unlike Get Out, the more this film tries to explain exactly what is going on, the more it seems to get tangled up in plot inconsistencies and allows the horror of the unexplained to really keep you gripped with fear or concern for the family. I wonder if Peele’s current project, a reboot of The Twilight Zone, a classic series which inspired countless filmmakers and horrified telly viewers in the 1960s, will benefit from having a shorter running time, meaning that the mystery of what exactly is going on will wreak delicious havoc that stays with us.
Nyong’o is the poster star of the piece, and how long overdue it is to have a WOC this time, tackling not one but two juxtaposing roles, in a mainstream horror. Though given a few pointless plot holes to skirt around (why doesn’t she just lift up the coffee table!!??), especially in the closing, explanatory moments that don’t quite live up to the mystery and inherent shock of the perhaps not-so otherworldly doppelgängers at the Wilson family’s door, Nyong’o is jittery yet brave, strong and yet paralysed with concealed childhood trauma. Asking “what” her guttural twisted twin is, the reply? “We’re Americans”. Subtle this film ain’t. Not should it be.
Elisabeth Moss is believable as a family acquaintance also playing the middle class game of keeping up appearances – her radiation of contempt for her husband is hardly concealed. When the film calls for a more maniacal turn, she’s utterly convincing. Peele, always one for diving into his bag of cinematic references, recalls the applying of lipstick scene in Powell and Pressberger’s Black Narcissus (1947).
Much kudos has rightly gone to Michael Abels for his chanting (reminiscent of The Omen (1976)) choral score which never overpowers the references of pop, hip hop and soul that is peppered throughout the soundtrack. A genius reworking of ‘I’ve Got 5 On It’ is the standout and NWA’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’ adds a great big bloodied slash of irony to one of the home invasion extended scenes. Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Les Fleur’, usually the go-to for an uplifting soundscape will forever sound haunting after seeing Us.
A muddled but fun horror film that probably won’t hold up when you really start to unpick it, Us is still resplendent with uncomfortable moments and creepy scares to keep you watching. It was always going to be difficult to surpass the massive cultural influence that Get Out promised, and though I don’t think we’ll be talking about Us in such seismic terms in years to come, it’s still an essential film of now.