Us (2019): Part 1 of 2
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Cinematographer: Mike Gioulakis
Producer: Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, and Jordan Peele
by Jon Cvack
Upon walking out of the theater, the three people I went with all agreed that what started out as a truly fantastic horror film crashed and burned by the final act; failing to deliver the twist or answer that we’ve been waiting for. Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report was released the next day and I made a joke on Facebook over being unsure what was more disappointing - the Report’s conclusion or the end of Us; causing me to get messages both from Trump sympathizers wondering why I was disappointed and fans of Peele’s ending wondering what issue I had.
One friend in particular said that the film was about trauma, and that story’s central character Adelaine had actually been sexually assaulted and was dealing with the psychological consequences of that event. It was a perspective I didn’t pick up, and per the beauty of art, is an interpretation I could get. My problems with the “It was a dream/fantasy/delusion/hallucination” aside, even if such a thing was Peele’s intention, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m being expected to believe that for at least the last 30 years, there’s been an entire colony of revolutionaries living beneath the earth, specifically one of California’s most famous cities, who are preparing to rise up and kill the humans up top by finding what’s close enough to their doppelgängers.
The same friend mentioned that as I didn’t expect to know where Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees came from, I shouldn’t need to know why or how these people rose up from the underworld. Slasher films are not operating by the same structure as a film such as Us, or any psychological suspense/horror/thriller. Their premise is simple - teenage victims, often led by a virginal female character, are attacked by a crazed, seemingly indestructible killer. The entire plot is following the heroine’s friends get killed one by one until her final battle with the killer; it’s not some grand philosophical exercise.
I have seen reviews comparing Jordan Peele to Hitchcock, which is accurate, if combined with Rod Sterling; especially as, unrelated to this film’s release, I had been revisiting many of Hitchcock’s film. Most notably, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Saboteur (1942). Both of these films operate within Hitchcock's Wrongfully Accused plot, in which the central character is unwillingly drawn into a sinister act. In Saboteur, an aircraft factory worker is blamed for an act of terrorism; forced to escape from the authorities in order to prove his innocence. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, while visiting Morocco with his family, Dr. Benjamin Mckenna finds himself involved in the assassination of a foreign statesmen. In both films, the primary question is what’s going on and why. We then slowly piece together the elements, until they finally assemble in act three, often leading to the hero entering into a grand battle to save either himself or his family.
To this day I remember watching the preview for James Mangold’s Identity (2003) in my friend’s parent’s basement. We went to the theater on the day of its release. I recall the moment when Jake Busey’s ex-con character escapes the motel to then run through the fields into a ravine and up the other side to find himself staring at the motel he just escaped. It had all been a masterful film up until that point, though it was the first moment I wondered how they could possibly explain this illogic. For those unfamiliar, by the standards of how great the rest of the movie is, Identity is arguably the most disappointing conclusion in modern film history; in which the entire story is the psychotic fantasy of a schizophrenic man on death row.
This is my problem with movies that allow for psychological fantasy and why I don’t like most surrealistic cinema (i.e., Jodorowsky or Bunuel). As mentioned in my thoughts on these films, the problem is that both genres allow you to get away with anything; either it’s accommodating some plausible symbolism, or if not, it’s just a dream/expression and doesn’t need to make sense. It allows for storytellers to both have their cake and eat it too; abide by logic when convenient, abandon the logic when it’s unhelpful.
On the New York Time’s culture podcast “Still Processing”, the two hosts mention how once the family is attacked by the four other individuals, we’re immediately wondering what’s going on and how it all connects. That’s exactly right, and yet even after praising the film and providing an interesting comparison to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), they never bothered to answer how millions of people were living beneath the Earth; only an escalator ride away from discovery, who finally decided to revolt and find perfect mirror images of themselves. I raised the same point to my friend who tried to explain that this in no way mattered. Another friend I debated said the same thing; ultimately not even caring about how these individuals got to where they were, asking me to abide by comic book movie logic - a whole other topic of conversation, but let’s just say I more aligned with Bill Maher’s "New Rule" on the matter. It’s not that comic’s are empty of morals or truth, it’s just that by the very nature of admitting comics are more than just about superheroes, then there should be a natural curiosity to study and look to additional and more challenging films or books which abandon the spectacle in favor of deeper assessments. Sure enough, while writing this, upon my first review search, I found the NYT’s opinion piece titled “Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a New Kind of Superhero Movie”. I find some vindication; at the end of the day, what I find to be a frustrating lack of reason is something comic book fans just wouldn't care about. It’s easy to buy broad premises. They’re willing to accept the fantasy because the film for them is not about reason, it’s about the experience and meaning of what’s going on. And again, when it comes to art, I can’t argue with that.
Us begins with one of the best horror intros I can recall seeing in the last decade. A young Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) and her mom and dad soon head down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk; the dad more interested in the games than his child or wife; soon completely distracted by Whac a Mole while his wife goes to the bathroom and the daughter walks away alone, as though called for. She heads down onto the beach and finds a funhouse, heading deeper and deeper within, until she finally comes across her doppelgänger who then reaches out to grab her. To note, it was during this sequence that it sounded like hundreds of footsteps were racing all over the place in the theater and I’m still not sure if this was part of the sound design, or the ten young punk teens who jumped into the front row thirty minutes after the movie started, having snuck into the theater. If I was mistaken, I can say that during a horrific scene, a dozen footsteps seeming to run in all directions behind me was one of the most disorienting theater experiences of my life.
The film then cuts forward and we meet an older Adelaine Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o), her husband and Howard graduate Gabriel (Winston Duke), their iPhone-addicted daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and their mask-wearing and weird son Jason (Evan Alex). They’re an upper middle class black family with a lakehouse on the outskirts of Santa Cruz (ethnicity being important here). The dad is your average father - goofy, a bit aloof, and determined that the whole family has as much fun - by his definition - as possible. Hours after arriving, he heads off to buy a rundown boat, cruising it up to the docks and showing it off to his family who couldn’t care less.
Recently I’ve both been talking to friends and admiring how a perfect story leaves nothing superfluous. In the ideal film, every single moment, nearly every single shot and line, is relevant to the story and drives it forward; allowing the viewer to connect the details. I’d argue any popular cinematic masterpiece works under this principle - people enjoy an engaging and fairly challenging puzzle. Too many tangents and people have no reason to pay attention. Too abstract and people can’t follow the story. The best Hitchcock and Spielberg films are the paragons of this ability.
Although a simpler example, such a fact is demonstrated when Gabriel is in the boat and the motor goes out, requiring him to have to slap it back into operation. Later, when he’s attacked, a thrilling sequence will carry out as the motor’s shorted out while he’s fighting for his life.
The family later heads to the beach and we meet the Wilson’s neighbors Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss; Tim Heidecker). Having not been back since her funhouse trauma, Adelaine is anxious about the visit. Kitty attempts to make small talk and offers Adelaine a drink, which she rejects in favor of water so she could keep a better eye on the kids. Jason wanders off and soon finds a creepy man dressed in a red jumpsuit with blood dripping from his hand. When Zora returns without her brother, Adelaine loses it, shouting his name and running around frantically to find him. He soon returns but doesn’t tell his mother about the man with the bloody hand.
They return home and get ready for bed when the power shuts off and a family of four is outside their house. Gabriel exits to try and get them to leave, returns to grab a baseball bat, and begins what “Still Processing” referred to as the Black Man Act. This is difficult to describe and I think demonstrates a larger issue we’re facing; as in in order to describe exactly what this means would require what sound like stereotypes but are points that the two black hosts omake, which is that this prescription contributes to the commentary on being black in America; which in order to fully express intimidation, Gabriel attempted to like an “angry black man” hoping it’d scare off the most likely white family who were harassing them.
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: Can always win me over with a scary fun house
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