‘Us’ a triumph of genre, auteur filmmaking

Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

9/10 Leaving the theater for the first time, the only thing I’m 100 percent sure about Us is that I need to see it again.

At their vacation home in Santa Cruz, California, the Wilson family, mother Adelaide, father Gabe and children Zora and Jason (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright and Evan Alex), are attacked in the night by four invaders, each clad in red and wielding golden shears. The Wilsons are terrified to realize that these invaders, these erratic, sub-lingual ghouls, are perfect doppelgangers corresponding to each of the family members.

Us is transcendent. It’s tightly written, meticulously choreographed, brilliantly acted and carefully shot. Realistically almost every scene is a highlight, but the 1986-set prologue scene, the doppelgangers’ introduction and the climactic dance-battle all stand out.

Us is cleanly divided between its literal and symbolic layers, and as much as the symbolic layer will drive discussion in the coming weeks, the literal layer deserves more attention. This is a loving throwback to ‘80s horror, incorporating simplistic home invasion and slasher subgenres with attention to detail and textbook jump-scare execution.

Us is such a mutt of genres it almost becomes difficult to categorize – in addition to home invasion and slasher subgenres, it also has sharp psychological horror edges, as well as significant action and comedy elements. Gabe in particular is constantly getting laughs, and the film contains several of the best fight scenes of the year so far.

Even without any of its symbolic elements or without any explanation of what’s going on – which the film spends far too much time on – Us vividly captures the existential terror of encountering a doppelganger, the knowledge that someone who looks exactly like you is out there and is coming to kill you. The fear the film generates of that kind of direct attention is so intense that even something as benign as scrolling through Facebook, encountering pictures of faces looking at me, is mildly traumatic afterward.

Writer/director/producer Jordan Peele has done particularly brilliant work with his actors here. In addition to wonderfully thought-out traditional slasher movie scenes, a major part of what makes Us so unnerving are the skittering, intentionally dysmorphic movements of the doppelgangers. To not only come up with a bible for that style of movement, but communicate it effectively across an array of actors, all of whom put their own spin on it in developing a second, unique character – obviously each of the actors deserve due credit, but systemically good acting like this is usually created by the director.

Among an entire cast’s worth of sterling performances, Nyong’o stands out both as Adelaide Wilson and her doppelganger, called Red in the script. After Us debuted at SXSW two weeks ago, many pegged her for another Oscar, which would be extremely significant for a horror genre that is still routinely ignored by awards voters.

The symbolic layer of Us is a tangling maze of religion, folklore, politics and wealth, subjects that could still expand to include marital strife, adolescent replacement of the parent, public education and even global warming. Most of these thoughts are couched in imagery related to the 1986 charity event Hands Across America, which has mostly been forgotten about, and with good reason.

Peele is slamming his dick on the table with Us. His first feature, 2017’s Get Out, changed American cinema overnight, opening the path for a small army of black filmmakers to crank out movies about the black experience in late ‘10s America. But as densely symbolic as Get Out is, and as much as it demands viewers read into the history behind it, most of that film’s deeper meanings are still approachable at face value.

The deeper meanings of Us are not. Us is not a movie that could have been released the way it has been as a debut feature. Viewers have to approach Us already expecting to look more deeply into what they’re seeing.

It’s master-level 2019 auteurism, which is expressed not just in the filmmaking but in the marketing campaign and in Peele’s public appearances and the cultivation of his persona. You think about Us differently knowing who made it, and it is built from the ground up to be thought about in that specific way. It doesn’t work nearly as well otherwise. In just his sophomore outing, Peele already has audiences – and is relying on audiences – going to see his movie expecting not just a quick night out, but a Jordan Peele Film.

Recent history is littered with excellent horror films – The Witch, Hereditary, Suspiria – drawing rave reviews at festivals only to fall flat in theaters, masterpieces dismissed as “boring” by audiences conditioned to cheap, quickly forgotten jump-scare movies. In Us, Peele has delivered the kind of audacious triumph of a film that is largely being ignored by mainstream audiences, and he’s done it on a wide-release scale.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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