IU Cinema’s very own David Carter is currently at South by Southwest, a major film festival that takes place in Austin, TX every March. This week, David will be providing us with exclusive sneak peeks at two of the exciting new films that 2019 will be bringing. Today’s review is courtesy of Jordan Peele’s Us, a brilliant horror film that David is sure we’ll be discussing for a long time.
The first time I sat watching the credits to Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out, I knew what I had just seen was special but didn’t know what to make of it. It was this film about the smile-and-wink racism that had developed in Baby Boomers during the Obama administration. It was this film about commodification of black bodies. And it was this film that ended on a note that made me scratch my head and question the previous 100 minutes because I wasn’t quite on its wavelength. When Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris Washington rides away with his friend in a TSA security car, I was baffled. It felt like a film that had been building up to bleak irony. Our hero triumphs over his captures but is gunned downed by the police. Night of the Living Dead referenced. Roll credits.
That’s not what Jordan Peele wanted. He wanted us to view this as a tale of perseverance and empathy, not irony. Chris is the Final Girl, beaten and battered, but forced to keep living his life and carrying those scars and traumas. It’s the ultimate horror. “Nevertheless, he persisted,” if you will. This is what it was to be black in America, and it took me my second viewing to finally see that this movie was a lightning-in-a-bottle zeitgeist masterpiece. Luckily, everyone else agreed.
The film was rewarded in the mainstream with a juggernaut of a box office gross and an Academy Award for Jordan Peele’s clockwork screenplay and it was almost immediately canonized by critics, filmmakers, and horror hounds alike. Since then he’s been gifted and taken the mantle as our premier socially-conscious genre maestro, following in the footsteps of Wes Craven and John Carpenter and even stepping into Rod Serling’s shoes as host and narrator for a Twilight Zone relaunch. He had teased in interviews that his next few (three more to be exact, he wants a five-movie cycle) films would be of a piece with Get Out and serve as an anthology of sorts, looking at the “social demons” that plague America. It was pretty clear that whatever Peele’s second movie ended up being, it was something that would get people talking when they left the theater.
This brings us to his 2019 film Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Tim Heidecker, and Elisabeth Moss, with newcomers Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex. A middle- to upper-middle-class family goes on vacation in Santa Cruz, a place that holds a lot of trauma for the matriarch, Adelaide Wilson (played by Nyong’o, who turns in a downright showstopping duel performance), a woman prone to keeping to herself but maintains a strong, watchful eye on her family. The family being the well-meaning but insecurely masculine patriarch Gabe (Duke in a role that’s a nice distance away from his performance as M’Baku in Black Panther); Zora, their prototypical but sweet teenage daughter (Wright Joseph); and her brother Jason (Alex), who’s as quiet as he is clever.
The trip begins as any atomic family vacation would: siblings bickering, parents lecturing, and meeting up with family friends, here played by Heidecker, in a supporting role very well-suited to his skill set, and Moss (who’s gonna be having quite a year between this and Her Smell). But there’s an aroma of unrest coming off of Adelaide. Earlier, we learned in the prologue that she experienced something traumatic at this very same beach and finds coming here every summer triggering.
The first night of their vacation, as they sit in their modest beach house ready to turn in for the night, their son Jason spots a family of four standing menacingly in their driveway, cast in shadow, motives unclear. The mystery of who the family is as quickly broken as the glass and doors they bust open to enter the house and beat and intimidate the Wilson family into submission. Once they step into the low light of a burning fireplace it becomes plain as day that the four invaders are the Wilson family’s doppelgängers. Well, more like their twisted twins, each reflecting back at the Wilson family through an obsidian mirror. What’s more unusual is that the only one of the members that speaks is Adelaide’s twisted sister. She croaks in her raspy voice that her life has taken the same path as Adelaide’s except where her life was good and stable, hers was full of pain and hardships as if an ironic twist was applied to all of Adelaide’s happiness. When Gabe finally decides to ask who these people are, Adelaide’s twin responds, “We are Americans.”
And to say anymore without seeing the film would be a disservice to what Jordan Peele is trying to do with Us. Where Get Out was so specific in its storytelling, themes, and genre mechanics, Us swerves right over into broadness. Themes and the genre mechanics at play are so much weirder here that they crash right into semiotics, a gumbo of horror, sci-fi and magical realism. But the storytelling is pretty much the circular “set-up, pay-off, and callback” method Peele used to so much success before, where innocuous lines about pointing fingers at someone only to find more pointing back at you come back textually and thematically and physical objects lingered on by the camera or talked about by the characters may as well be Chekhov’s gun. Also, it would be a shame to not mention that the dialogue and (morbid) physical comedy of this film is so funny and charming that you sometimes forget you’re watching a somewhat harrowing movie about a family being terrorized by themselves.
The film is shot by Mike Gioulakis, who famously gave the film It Follows its incredibly distinctive look, and he brings the same eerie work here. Michael Abel’s score is among some of the most original sounding music in contemporary filmmaking. Not only does his symphony of chanting voices and droning percussion inspire fear, it inspires you to bob your head just a bit. Even his orchestral arrangement of Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” (which is a recurring theme throughout the film) could stand alone as its own beautiful piece of orchestration.
But what about those themes? Well, like Get Out, I sat there stewing on what I had just seen, except that this time I felt like I understood and yet didn’t completely grasp what Peele is going for here. In a broad sense, the film is about America being its own worst enemy. Peele said as much in his Q&A following the premier of the film in Austin. He spoke about how Americans are so afraid of external invaders that we get blindsided by the invasions we have right on our own soil. He never spoke the words “Trump” or “2016 election” but you could see them in parenthesis.
But to call it a cut-and-dry allegory to the back half of this decade’s political landscape would imply that there isn’t something else going on here. Imagery like rabbits and scissors litter the frame, while characters’ decisions and the final images of the film really spell out something bigger that I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on. Therein lies Jordan Peele’s filmmaking — after two films he’s proven himself to be a provocateur of thought. Much like how I left Get Out stewing and rearranging the pieces in a different order that made me view the film in a completely different light, I think the same thing will happen for Us. This is a film that people are going to be debating and re-analyzing for the months to come. I, for one, can’t wait.
Following its world premiere at South by Southwest on March 8, Us will be released nationwide March 22, 2019.
Eager to hear more about David’s SXSW adventures? Check out IU Cinema’s podcast, A Place for Film, on iTunes for special episodes broadcast straight from Austin. For fun live updates, you can also follow the podcast, David, and his co-host Elizabeth Roell on Twitter @iucinemapodcast, @SamuraiFlicks, and @elizabethroell respectively.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.