Jordan Peele’s Get Out Follow-up Can’t get it Together.
DIRECTED BY JORDAN PEELE/2019
Silly and predictable, Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated and brilliantly marketed Us is a nothing short of a tremendous disappointment. Bearing the misfortune of being the director’s next film following the tremendous success of its rai·son d’ê·tre, 2017’s Get Out, it’s full-on misplaced self-confidence is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village– a terrifically well executed buzzed-about film anchored with bold performances by talented actors. Somewhere in the unrealized depths of a sparking creative imagination, therein lurks the truer, bolder version of Us. The version currently released to theaters is too much like its own antagonists: A shadow self, stifled in its communication and occasionally down on all fours.
Detrimental to its execution, Us hinges entirely on the political and social ideas beneath the surface, lacking much in the way of truly fleshed out characters or central believability. Per its concept, Us is the story of the Wilsons, on a vacation-turned-nightmare in Santa Cruz. The family, though, is cast in the mold of your basic sitcom family. Dopey dad with his obliviousness and crappy speedboat (Winston Duke); the far sharper and straitlaced mom (Lupita Nyong’o); the geeky young son (Evan Alex) and introverted quippy tween daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph), ever rolling her eyes at the speedboat. It is a mold they never break out of.
One of the finer sequences of Us occurs within the opening flashback, taking place in 1986. A black family of three with a young daughter are doing their best to enjoy a beachfront carnival. The blank detachment of their little girl betrays the panoply of whirling, blinking lights and carny callings. Bored, she ventures into a what appears to be a house of mirrors, sporting the incandescent words “Find Yourself”. The inherent anxiety of a lost child forced to confront the unknown is the stuff of pure horror, and this sequence has that. From here, the core strangeness of Us promisingly begins.
Though better steered in its horror impulses than its comedy, Us nonetheless resorts to too many scare cliches. For example, in the opening minutes, a lost little girl wanders passed one of those lonesome creepy guys that hang around in horror stories. His handwritten cardboard sign says Jeremiah 11:11.
Jeremiah 11:11, per the modernized ESV translation, says, “Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.” In the aesthetic parlance of easy horror movie tropes, the use of this obscure verse to cultivate dread is particularly clumsy. Granted, most of the time, it doesn’t matter what the verse in question actually says; the mere ominousness of its usage is intended to be enough. For homework, viewers can go look it up later. In this case, the verse in question immediately evokes Jordan Peele spending an afternoon searching online Bible databases for terms like “disaster” and “escape”. With no clear cut slam dunks to serve in this out-of-context signaling, Jeremiah 11:11 will have to do. (Bonus: later, the guy can have “ll ll” gouged into his forehead. That nut). The trope of the glimpsed weirdo holding a Bible verse sign is one of the most unfortunate shorthand’s, as it’s simply evoking general discomfort with Christianity while also leaning into it, albeit via complete appropriation. This is the level at which the whole of Us operates. As Gertrude (Stein) 11:11 says, “There’s no there there.” Certainly not the sort we’ve been led to expect, anyhow.
If one were to teach young people about clunky foreshadowing, Us would make for an ideal case study. The prominent use of that toy ambulance to prop a sticking cabinet door open will have you wondering who will be locked in that cabinet later, and when a real ambulance will factor into the film. (It happens, and one does). The opening 1986 flashback showcasing the national feel-good happening “Hands Across America” is a curious set-up, for sure. How will that strange human chain factor into Us…? (It actually does). And the half-baked Trump-y symbolism… Red jumpsuits make for interesting MAGA cap surrogates, and a mysterious golden escalator evokes a certain announcement for candidacy. Plenty more where all this came from, of course.
The only resonance and significance Us can offer is that which is grafted onto it through the name Jordan Peele. And not just “Written, Produced, and Directed by Jordan Peele”, but the of-the-moment, post-Get Out Jordan Peele. Devoid of logic and originality, Us feels mostly like the fever dream of a trending filmmaker ignoring his own exhaustion from the perpetual spotlight. Maybe he’s soaked up a few accolades too many. All the formal elements that made Get Out work for mass audiences are here: Comedy, dread, social commentary, solid craftsmanship. Us, though, takes those things up a notch or two, from the level of the newfangled nightmare and into the realm of oneiric jumble. As far as viscera and threat, Us is a PG-13 horror movie masquerading as a loftier R-rated outing. Its masquerade, though, will prove as chintzy as the vac-plastic werewolf mask the son obsessively wears.
There’s a weird hopefulness in Us, even as things inevitably escalate. That Peele doesn’t telegraph his messages is okay, even admirable in theory, though such an approach is questionable within a framework that ultimately does serve up a considerable amount of explanation. One suspects that Peele has the creative impulse and desire to go all in with twisted visions and audience-punishing shock the way Hereditary recently did. But Us only teases such an approach… the only approach that would truly elevate this concept. In a movie that invites questions of identity, the biggest identity struggle is its own. Is Us a nightmarish horror? A dark comedy? A warped political allegory? A crowd pleaser? A mind bender? All of the above, and ultimately none. Despite some terrific work from the cast, and some solid horror imagery, the screenplay remains in desperate need of an earnest push in one direction or another.
To springboard from Walt Kelly (no doubt an inevitably copied quote in the sea of reviews for this copy-ridden film), we have met the enemy of Us… and it is Us.