Us (2019)

MARCH 25, 2019


One of my favorite (for lack of a better word) things to do when watching movies is to scan the characters' bookshelves/ entertainment centers to see what movies/books/games/etc they own, usually for my own amusement and also to test my "skill" at recognizing something from a blurry spine. However, in Jordan Peele's Us, this habit is actually rewarded - the five VHS films that are seen on the shelf next to a television in the film's opening scene are all referenced later in one way or another, and help unpack some of the clues that this puzzling film offers about its ambitious (borderline insane) concept. It's a film that I felt I needed to see twice before writing this review (I first saw it last week at an advanced screening), partly because I had some issues with its third act reveals that I thought might work better a second time, and partly to double check that my own theories as to what Peele was *really talking about* weren't contradicted by information I was conveniently forgetting (i.e. what 90% of fan theories end up being).

But also partly just to enjoy the film on its surface level, which is a perfectly fine way to watch the movie - it's not like everyone who loves Dawn of the Dead has picked up on its satire, to name one example. If you've seen the trailer you know the concept: a normal family of four, led by Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) finds themselves menaced by mirror images of themselves, and the first 80ish minutes are essentially a freakier version of a home invasion movie as a result. There's a lengthy chunk in the middle where it's easy to forget that this movie has any real ideas and just enjoy the cat and mouse stuff, with clones substituting for the usual people in masks or whatever. Our heroes don't stay in the home for as long as you'd expect from a traditional entry in the sub-genre, but it still offers the same kind of thrills. There's a bit where the clone of the daughter chases her to a car and then seemingly disappears, leaving our hero daughter to wonder if she's gotten on the car's roof or gone under it - that's just a straight up suspense setpiece, no politics or message required.

However, eventually these sort of beats are discarded in favor of explaining where the clones came from, what they want (sort of), and why Red (Adelaide's double, who she first encountered as a child and was traumatized as a result) seems to be the only one that can talk. And that, my friends, is where we get into heavy spoiler territory, so after I say "This movie is really good if somewhat messy in spots" for those who came here to see if it got my seal of approval, you need to close this tab right now if you haven't seen it yet.

Still with me? OK, so Peele could have just let the clones do their thing for an appropriate horror movie runtime, have our family (or just SOMEONE) survive and maybe give us a grim ending with the reveal that they weren't the only ones being menaced by duplicates, without ever explaining where they came from. It'd frustrate some, of course, but it'd follow suit with horror classics (including Peele's beloved Night of the Living Dead) to not explain why it was happening and focus more on who will survive it, letting audiences draw their own conclusions. Instead, Red delivers not one but two lengthy monologues that lay most of it out, plus there's a Saw-like "OK here's all those things that happened earlier, quickly flashing by now that you have new context" montage for good measure. Red's first info dump is vague enough to still fit into a "it just IS" kind of explanation since it focuses more on her own personal motivations, but the second (much longer) one inches into "Someone's about to draw a diagram on a chalkboard" areas of making sure the audience is completely brought up to speed.

(In fact there is a chalkboard behind her, but she doesn't use it in the scene, so I guess we dodged a bullet there.)

It's not that the explanation itself is bad - on the contrary, it's kind of fascinating, and I'd happily watch another movie (even - gasp - a prequel) that explored it even more. The problem is, like The Purge (also from Jason Blum, notably), the concept is so good that it's natural to ask questions about the logistics, and the way the information is presented invites itself to these questions. I won't spoil everything, but I'll say that the clone people come from underground subway tunnels and such and apparently have a Dharma Corporation-like entity making sure they are supplied with water (food is explained via rabbits, eaten raw) and materials to make clothing (and also lots of golden scissors, for some reason). If we only ever saw the clones wearing red jumpsuits, no one would think "where did they get their clothes?" but instead we see them dressed in generic normal clothing and then actually make their jumpsuits - and it's very difficult to see this and not start wondering how that worked. Did they have enough red material to make 320 million suits? Why? The concept is huge, but it feels like Peele realized if he answered one question about the nitty-gritty he'd have to answer all of them, so he had to just ask us to go with it, but perhaps he should have been scaling back what he showed us so we never thought to ask.

One benefit to this is that you are free to come up with your own theories as to what he's really getting at, as there's not a lot of hard evidence that can contradict it. One thing that keeps popping up is "Hands Across America", a charity stunt that was held in 1986 where people would hold hands in a line (ideally from one end of the country to the other) while raising awareness/money for hunger. It didn't really pan out; they didn't make all that much money and more than half of what they did went to paying for the operating costs. This concept - for spoiler-y reasons I won't divulge - speaks to the clone folk, and stage two of their uprising (stage one being "kill our others") appears to be recreating it, only more successfully. Now, while the film isn't as overtly racially motivated as Get Out, this interpretation (and others that I've spoken to) about these people, with their affinity for red clothing and mission to form a wall, certainly recalls some unfortunate racial biases - but that whole idea might just be my own reading and not what Peele intended at all.

And there's a trickle down effect to this that can drive you batty if your mind is engineered to decode/analyze what you're seeing, because you're not sure where it ends. The VHS tapes are obviously very carefully chosen (otherwise they'd just be fellow Universal movies), as is the "I got five on it" song that the family sings along to (it's about sharing something that traditionally is barely enough for one, like a dimebag, or your time on earth). But where does it stop? The son wears a Jaws shirt throughout the movie - is Peele drawing a parallel between the shark and the clones, because they're both coming to the surface because they need to survive but seen as monsters to the people above? Or does he just like Jaws and could save a couple bucks on licensing if a character wore a shirt from a Universal movie? This sort of thing can be fun (see: The Shining documentary Room 237), but it can also be distracting, as you start looking around for clues and end up missing the larger point of a scene. And since some information is indeed conveyed in a subtle manner (Adelaide's father walked out on the family shortly after her incident, but that's never spelled out - we just have to notice that he's not in any of the pictures that we see of her growing up), it's hard to know when you're allowed to just get caught in the moment of a scene or if you still need to have your thinking cap on.

Of course, he has something he wants to say, and is using a horror film to make that point because he's good like that. Naturally, your reading of these elements will play a big part on how you look at the film as a whole, so on one hand it's good that he confined the bulk of it for the film's final 20-25 minutes, so you could at least enjoy the ride until then. On the other, it gives the film a strange pacing, as it almost literally stops dead to have someone explain everything that's going on, at a point where things should be at their most exciting. And it's stuff I'm not sure we needed explained anyway, so it'd be like if the original Halloween carried on as normal and then Dr Wynn came back and explained all the cult stuff from H6 right then and there. In interviews, Peele has gone out of his way to combat the "it's a psychological thriller" kind of shit by insisting that it's a horror movie, but the lack of tension in its final reel is odd to say the least. The crux of the finale involves Adelaide trying to rescue her son from Red (who has taken him back to the tunnels), but he's practically forgotten once Adelaide gets down there and confronts her doppelgänger - he's not in any perceivable danger, and even if he was, most audience members would probably be thinking about the implications of what they just learned instead of getting worked up in the present threat.

That said, Peele's horror cred is never in doubt throughout the rest of the film; a clever in-joke early on reminds us that he knows his shit ("They're filming a movie by the carousel," says Adelaide's mother in a 1986 flashback set in Santa Cruz - you get it, Michael?) and while one of the two horror films in that aforementioned VHS collection is a classic everyone knows, the other is more obscure and will excite only Peele's fellow Fangoria readers. But more importantly, he uses horror cliches smartly - in particular an early bit where Gabe and Adelaide chide their daughter for wanting to quit the track team because she says it's pointless. This is a standard bit of foreshadowing shorthand; they want to establish that this character can run fast because later on they'll be required to do that for plot purposes, and that is indeed what happens. BUT, the real point to it is to lay out another example of how the "above" people are wasting the life that has been denied to the clones in the tunnels, hammered home when the clone daughter has to chase the real one and is clearly relishing the ability to use her skill, even letting the real one get a bit of a head start so that she can give herself more of a challenge. That's the sort of thing that Peele really excels at, and why the genre is lucky to have him.

But it's his intelligence and skill that also makes the film somewhat frustrating, because it's so close to being an all-timer. I don't know if he chose to convey as much info as he did (and WHEN he did) or if a producer/test screening dictated he do so, but either way it lacks the finesse that earned him an Oscar last time. An opening text crawl also seems to exist only to clarify something people might wonder about, and it too is ill-timed, as it foreshadows information that seems like it should be a total surprise when introduced ninety minutes later (it reminded me a bit of the theatrical cut of Dark City explaining who the strangers were right off the bat). We also have to take a large leap of faith that Adelaide has seemingly never realized that their summer home is so close to the beach where she had her childhood trauma, which is another thing that Peele could have easily avoided by removing the references to having been there before in the first place.

However, even with its minor missteps, it's another exciting film from a one-of-a-kind modern filmmaker, one I'll enjoy revisiting down the road to pick up on more little details and see how my own continued privileged existence has me interpreting certain things. Peele even said he'd be open to going back to this world (more optimistic than he sounded when asked about a Get Out sequel), so it's possible there are things we're not meant to fully comprehend yet but will later. If that doesn't happen, then what we got is intriguing and ambitious, and overall worthy of its praise (and box office fortunes) despite its few flaws. Since I could say the same about the original Twilight Zone, we can consider this movie a $20m advertisement for his upcoming revival, and CBS should send Universal a gift basket for all the extra subscriptions they'll be selling as a result.

What say you?


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