Us movie director: Jordan Peele
Us movie cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Us movie rating: 3.5 stars
Are people really what they seem? Or, the more polished the exterior, beware the side they are not showing? That was the premise of Jordan Peele’s brilliant take on race relations in post-Obama America in Get Out, with the writer-director sharply taking down the glib liberalism of whites.
If that film portrayed the deep fears of the two delicately poised races, Us goes deeper into the inner-most fears of us all. Us vs them. Us vs us. US vs the world. And the wall vs us.
The black Winston family at the heart of it is absolutely average in every sense of the world — decently well off, adequately close, suitably teen-troubled, amicably warm. If there is some tension with their white friends, it is only on account of who owns the bigger car, boat, house. You know, regular stuff.
But there is a ‘black cloud’ hanging over the mother, Adelaide Winston (Nyong’o), as she calls it and we can feel it. They have come for summer vacations to her mother’s place near the Santa Cruz beach where, years ago, she had a nightmarish experience at a Hall of Mirrors in an amusement park: she had run into a girl who looked exactly like her.
Describing the worst kind of terror, Stephen King says ‘it’s when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute’. Peele himself has talked of a real-life incident that inspired this film, of walking down an abandoned subway one night and imagining what would happen should he meet his doppelganger. The trailers too surmises Us as a story of Winstons encountering their doubles.
However, Us’s dopplegangers aren’t really exact doubles, more like a nightmarish version of it. Dressed in red overalls (strikingly close to the orange of Guantanamo Bay), they appear one night in the driveway of the Winstons, and proceed to make their way in, with little compunction, consideration, emotion or dialogue. Their eyes are fixed, their mouths set, their sounds guttural. Only Adelaide’s double speaks, in a strained voice, dragged from somewhere deep inside, and talks about their purpose.
She says they are the ‘shadows’, the ‘tethered’, the ‘forgotten’, the ‘unloved’, the ‘unseen’, living down below, who have come to upend the world. In other words, she concludes, “We are Americans.”
Having taken your breath out with these three words, surmising America’s belief regarding its unique place in the world, its promise of democracy and statues of liberty, and yet its appetite for wars and walls, Peele never really reaches this high point again.
More terrifying than Get Out, Peele’s second feature is also more muddled. The fears of one family are soon the fears of their neighbourhood, town, country. Since the doppelgangers are so visibly different, there is no tension regarding who the person sitting next to you may be. Since the weapons wielded are fire pokers, scissors, golf clubs and stones, lot of blood gets splattered around, sometimes accompanied with gurgling and squelching sounds. The kids are as much a part of the killing as well as the killed.
As the Winstons (including father Gabe played by Duke, Joseph as daughter Zora and Alex as son Jason, all good, with Nyong’o exceptional) start to enjoy the chase, there is probably a hint of how quickly ‘us’ can become ‘them’. How we may be our worst enemies, or how good we are at hiding that. But film-wise, these remain concepts, and often, Zora flexing her muscles after hammering a double to death is played for laughs.
Peele has other high concepts hanging about: Bible verses talking of evil, a golden escalator transporting one from the netherworld to above, rabbits down holes. So the doppelgangers, the tethered, the twins, whatever you may call it, stand in for everything from the outsiders, the insiders, the 99%, to even a scientific experiment gone wrong — much like the trick Peele pulled off in Get Out.
But, once again, he gets it right on one count, which sets him apart from other filmmakers of this genre (if one can fit Peele into any): that while horror comes in many forms, it almost always takes the form of your worst nightmare.