Thursday, March 28, 2019

MIRROR, MIRROR: a review of "Us"

Written, Produced and Directed by Jordan Peele
**** (four stars)

There is an expression that we all tend to utilize when confronted with another individual--usually a loved one--who is behaving in a manner unusual to how we tend to recognize, and therefore understand them. The expression in question that we use to describe the person behaving differently, strangely or even badly, is the following: "You don't seem like yourself."

Over the years, I have come to view that statement as a complete fallacy for the simple fact that no matter how we may be behaving outwardly, no matter how different, strange or badly, no matter how incomprehensible we may seem, we are always ourselves...especially when our behaviors may seem to be bubbling up from the deepest, darkest recesses of our multi-faceted personalities and psyche.

It is through this specific conceptual lens that I found myself staring through as I screened "Us,"  Writer/Producer/Director Jordan Peele's second film and follow up to his box office behemoth, critical smash hit and Oscar winning social horror film "Get Out" (2017). 

Certainly, for the purposes of this review and as a practice of Savage Cinema, I will refrain from any and all spoilers, but what I can tell you at this time is that Jordan Peele is the real deal as he has proven himself to not being a one-trick-pony and there is not one instance of the mythical "sophomore slump" whatsoever. With "Us," Peele has firmly established not only that "Get Out" was no fluke but that he is indeed one of our most inventive, imaginative and blessedly original filmmakers in a world of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and re-imaginings.

"Us" is original indeed, as Jordan Peele takes the conventions and aesthetics of the psychological horror thriller and filters them through a ferocious social commentary that this time around is disturbingly grim to an apocalyptic degree. So deeply under my skin this film burrowed that I found myself driving home from the theater in complete silence as I needed to have the time and space to get my thoughts together as well as calm my spirits down from what I had just experienced.

Jordan Peele's "Us" opens in the year 1986 as young Adelaide Thomas, along with her parents, visits a beachfront carnival in Santa Cruz. Adelaide soon wanders off and finds herself inside of a funhouse hall of mirrors, where she is confronted by her own doppelganger. Even though Adelaide is soon reunited with her parents, she remains severely traumatized and unable to speak about her experience.

Flash forward to present day where the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is now married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and Mother to their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). With plans to travel to their Santa Cruz beach house for a summer vacation, as well as meet up with their friends, the perpetually argumentative and inebriated Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their twin daughters, Cali and Noelle (Becca and Lindsey Tyler), Adelaide continues to grow more unsettled as the memories of her childhood trauma begins to resurface.

And then, on one fateful night, a group of four, red jumpsuit wearing individuals appear in the family's driveway, holding hands. Soon, the home is invaded by the foursome who call themselves "The Tethered" and Adelaide and her family struggle to survive the night as they are under attack by these scissor wielding assailants who nightmarishly look like ghoulish doppelganger versions of themselves.

With the arrival of Jordan Peele's "Us," we are graced with the realization that Peele has unquestionably become a new vibrant creative filmmaking voice filled with intelligence, invention and a fiercely committed intention to weaving purposefully multi-layered material designed to force us to confront the darkest recesses of our shared humanity while also entertaining and making us jump out of our seats in fright.

With just two films, I am amazed with how quickly Jordan Peele has already established his own cinematic universe. While he extends and expands his visual palate to often striking degrees with "Us," both this film and "Get Out" are clearly playing off of each other with his filmmaking aesthetics. From the music from Composer Michael Abels, who also scored "Get Out," to the brilliance of Peele's entire Sound Design team and most certainly, Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis for the striking, almost hallucinogenic mirror imagery that fuels the film's themes of duality, I am unable to stress enough how much "Us" is delivered in a multi-layered style that makes for an experience that demands several viewings.

As with his predecessor "Get Out," "Us" is best experienced with a modicum of information so as to not dilute the overall effect. That said, and for me, the ultimate effect of this film was profoundly unsettling. Unlike "Get Out," where Peele's social commentary about race, racism and being Black in a post-Obama America was the ingenious engine that drove that film, Peele wisely did not return explicitly to that conceptual well. Even so, the racial politics of "Us," while more subtle are no less seismic.

As often announce upon this page, representation is everything and with "Us," Jordan Peele has given us a mainstream horror film that just happens to feature an African-American family in the leading roles as well as existing as the core of the film inits entirety. To that end, and in its own matter-of-fact aesthetic, Peele has delivered a window into an area of African-American culture that is not often presented: the image of an affluent, upper middle class, college educated, two-parent Black family with the ability to take a summer vacation and even purchase a boat--all aspects that are never even blinked at with films starring White protagonists. To that end, Peele's inclusion of cultural signposts such as Gabe's Howard University sweatshirt as well as the family's love of Luniz's "I Got 5 On It" were most welcome due to the utter normalcy of their presentation (despite Adelaide's odd inability to snap her fingers on beat...) 

Oh, how I wish I could express some more explicit thoughts about Peele's motifs within "Us," from the presentation of rabbits, the 1986 Hands Across America campaign, Adelaide repetitively finding herself chained, the recurring notion of events happening within 15 minute time frames (plus whatever you may have caught that I missed) but again, I do not wish to spoil.

That being said, I do think that what I am able to present to you is the film's primary theme of the duality that exists within ourselves, no matter how virtuous or venomous we may be, either separately or simultaneously. What I am speaking of is essentially the darkest corners of ourselves, the areas of ourselves that we do not wish to legitimize but we all know exist within ourselves.

In fact, at this time, I do invite you to please take a moment to do something that I am certain will be unpleasant for you. There is no need or request for you to share, but for right now, I am asking you to just ponder over your lives and experiences and take a moment to think of the very worst thing you have ever done, the ugliest thoughts you may have harbored, the very things about yourself that you would never, ever wish for anyone to know.  The pieces of ourselves that we generally strive to temper, to contain and to even bury. Now that you have taken this moment, and fully understanding that even these reprehensible aspects are as much a part of you and I as our wonderful attributes, just imagine if those dark seeds grew and took a larger shape, either in yourselves or within society.

For me, Jordan Peele's "Us" takes the concept of being's one own worst enemy to a grander, more insidious and even subterranean depths where the rapacious, shadowy souls that make up The Tethered serve nearly the same function as The Sunken Place in "Get Out"--the dark pit where we lose ourselves and are therefore consumed by some other hungry entity that has been wrestling for control.

Here is where Peele infuses the bloodletting horror with an equally brutal gut punch of cultural social commentary: that even with as much affluence and objects of materialism we may surround ourselves with, no one is immune or safe from their own worst impulses. From here, Peele expands his scope as as "Us" made me think about how our darkest selves have been manifested throughout social media and comment threads, where the lens of anonymity has emboldened so many to cast any sense of caution, decorum, respect, dignity and humanity to the four winds and spew every conceivable vomitous thought.

And certainly, what of our social political discourse in the Trump era, leading with the Commander In Chief himself, continuously emboldened by the roars of his adoring crowds as well as any perceived political victories, to continue to unapologetically fire off everything from innocuous insults to blusteringly blown dog whistle language which then emboldens supporters and true believers to do the very same in the real world, thus inciting increased fear, division, wrath, anger, and rage. With that, Jordan Peele's "Us" extends largely from a stylish, grotesquely effective horror thriller into a punishing societal warning that our apocalypse will not only arrive from our own hands but if we continue upon this path, it will be imminent. 

As his conduits, Peele struck gold with his entire cast, who all perform double duties as their primary characters plus their shadow selves of The Tethered. Yet, Lupita Nyong'o performance as Adelaide and her shadow self known as Red is remarkable to behold and I have to say that her physical and vocal mastery in both roles is gradually becoming more apparent to me as I recall the film...also a tremendous reason "Us" demands subsequent viewings.

You know, I think I may have expressed more than enough as I urge you, even those of you who are not horror film fans (like myself as I give the genre a wide berth generally), to see a ferociously original film that speaks directly to this moment in time in our shared existence in the 21st century.  Jordan Peele's "Us" is a film of even greater intensity than "Get Out" as he has indeed ratcheted up the scare factor and the violence (bloody but not gratuitous). But it is also a film of great humanity through its artistry, humor and overall humanity despite the dire and doom throughout.

And for me, it is already one of 2019's very best films.

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