Us Programme Notes


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 Spoiler warning: this article reveals key plot developments

 One of the most gratifying things about Jordan Peele’s box-office conquering, Oscar-winning horror movie Get Out (2017) was the elegant way its central premise functioned as a metaphorical exploration of the optics of racial progress in America at a time when blatant racism was clearly on the rise again. This was a film that penetrated pop culture to such an extent that it became impossible to watch Green Book and not think of “the Sunken Place” as Peter Farrelly’s comforting, white-centric take on racism took home the Oscar for best picture over the Peele-produced/Spike Lee-directed BlacKkKlansman. Peele and Lee’s film offered a far more critical and much less reassuring overview of the progress in race relations that’s been made in the States since the early 1960s.

 With his new film Us, however, Peele seems intent on broadening his own thematic interests, shifting his gaze away from explicitly racial concerns to focus more broadly on the fear, contempt and wilful ignorance generated by America’s class divide. Inspired by the filmmaker’s own fear of doppelgängers, the story tells of a race of human clones known as the “Tethered” who rise up from a vast subterranean tunnel network to kill their above-ground counterparts in order to free themselves from the pain of their own tortured existence.[1] 

For reasons that become clearer as the film progresses, this new threat manifests itself first in the lives of the Wilsons, an ordinary black middle-class family of four, headed up by Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide and Winston Duke’s Gabe. Their annual vacation is interrupted by the arrival of four malevolent strangers who look a lot like them, but come dressed in red overalls, wielding gold scissors and seem mighty pissed off that they have lives that they should be living. Here the film brings to mind home-invasion movies such as Funny Games (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997 and 2007), The Strangers (Dir. Bryan Bertino, 2008), The Purge (Dir. James DeMonaco, 2013) and even Home Alone (Dir. Chris Columbus, 1990). But around the half-way mark, the film zooms out to show the extent to which this might be a national phenomenon — something already hinted at when a terrified Adelaide asks her doppelgänger (also played by Nyong’o) who they are. “We’re Americans,” comes the chilling reply. 

As that line indicates, Peele isn’t trying to hide who the real monsters are in Us: they’re right there in the film’s punning title, something he as good as confirmed at a Q&A following the film’s world premiere. “This movie is about this country,” he said. “We’re in a time where we fear the other, whether it’s the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us and take our jobs, or the faction we don’t live near, who voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil, it’s us.”[2

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How successfully he articulates this idea with the movie is another matter. Twice in the film Peele has Adelaide’s doppelgänger spell everything out in gasping-for-air monologues that are unsettling not so much for what they reveal, but for the agonised way Nyong’o makes every word sound like it’s a struggle to get out — a smart performance choice that helps the 12 Years A Slave Oscar-winner convey the pain of a character whom we learn has been denied a voice for much of her life. Yet the film’s big ideas can still feel a little garbled and unformed, full of distracting logic gaps and overburdened with metaphorical significance that may or not be there. It’s actually no surprise to learn that The Shining (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980) is one of Peele’s favourite movies: Us is stuffed full of Easter eggs that seem purposefully designed to send fans on the same sort of madness-inducing quest for meaning that Kubrick obsessives continue to go on with that film. 

But The Shining was also genuinely scary. Aside from a brilliantly executed prologue and credit sequence detailing a traumatic event from Adelaide’s childhood, Us really isn’t. That also makes it more frustrating that Peele leaves it to us to construct meaning from the plethora of coded pop culture signifiers, the slew of signposted biblical references (Jeremiah 11:11 is the film’s leitmotif), and, strangest of all, the repeated callbacks to the 1986 Hands Across America charity spectacle. That event saw six million Americans join hands to form a transcontinental human chain in order to raise money to fight poverty and homelessness in a country that elected the welfare-gutting Ronald Reagan twice[3]. Is this the film’s way of exposing the hypocrisy of a country whose population makes a show of caring for one another but is only really interested in looking after themselves? Perhaps. Or maybe the final shot of the Tethered forming a similar human chain is a metaphor for Trump’s base rising up and plunging the country into chaos because they didn’t get the life they were promised. Again, maybe — but you have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to land at these sorts of conclusions with the narrative apparatus Peele provides us with in the film. 

In the end, the barrage of caveat-strewn rave reviews that have already greeted the film might make it easy to dismiss this latest hot-shot auteur with talk of emperors and new clothes.[4] But Time magazine critic Stephanie Zacharek offers a more nuanced take on the niggling doubts Peele’s sophomore feature inspires in her perceptive review of the film: “Sometimes great movies are ambiguous, but ambiguity resulting from unclear thinking makes nothing great. It’s one thing for a movie to humble you by leaving you unsure about yourself and your place in the world; it’s another for it to leave you wondering what, exactly, a filmmaker is trying to use his formidable verbal and visual vocabulary to say.”[5]

Alistair Harkness

Film Critic, The Scotsman

March 2019



 

[1] Nicole Sperling, ‘The Monster Within’, Vanity Fairhttps://www.vanityfair.com/hol...

[2] Tasha Robinson, ‘Jordan Peele’s Us turns a political statement into unnerving horror’, The Verge (https://www.theverge.com/2019/...

[3] Sperling

[4] https://www.metacritic.com/mov...

[5] Stephanie Zacharek, ‘Jordan Peele's Us Is Dazzling to Look At. But What Is It Trying to Say?’ Timehttp://time.com/5552617/review...


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