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Review: Us (2019)

By Mark Laherty

Holy shit!

A great film mostly sustained by a string of rock-solid action sequences that make up the second act. Comparisons to Get Out are tempting, unfair, but unavoidable. After all, the biggest reason that lots of people are interested in this film is that this is Jordan Peele’s second stint as a director where the first was an excellent satire of racism released, with almost supernaturally good timing, in the interim between election day and Trump’s swearing-in. Get Out heralded the arrival of a new dark age of the West. Everyone wanted to see what Peele did next. So, what did he do next? Is it about race?

Something annoys me about the idea that Peele is obliged to transcend race, that a move away would be, as one critic in an Irish newspaper put it, refreshing. As if his one-film oeuvre about race was too much and left audiences in need of a palette cleanser. “Why do I have to transcend race?” asked a character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. “You know, like race is a brew best served mild, tempered with other liquids, otherwise white folk can’t swallow it.”

In any event, Us isn’t really about race. Certainly, there are parts that tap on the theme. Early on, our hero Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years A Slave, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and Black Panther) suffers an awkward sitcom interaction with an obnoxious white woman (Elisabeth Moss of West Wing and Mad Men). There are also, I think it’s fair to say, racial undertones to the scene where Adelaide is cuffed and threatened with scissors by another, much more violent white woman (Elisabeth Moss of West Wing and Mad Men). But, you’ve probably spotted the weird part there.

This is a film about doppelgangers. Specifically, it’s about a family of doppelgangers who mirror Nyong’o’s family. When the regular family go on a holiday and stay in a beach house, the doppelgangers attack. But, Adelaide has seen them before. As a child of six (the excellent Madison Curry), she went on a holiday to that same beach, wandered into a hall of funhouse mirrors, and saw herself. This, for obvious reasons, is a tough sell to her husband – right up until it isn’t.

Peele has improved as a filmmaker since Get Out, which itself was far from shabby. The opening scene of little Adelaide is especially striking, with lots of pleasingly centred but asymmetrical shots, like a Wes Anderson doppelganger (Peele knows how to handle race, so he truly is the mirror Anderson). The score by Michael Abels (returning from Get Out) also deserves a shout. Much of it languishes about in functional horror territory with all the startles and non-harmonious strings that entails, but key scenes are set to memorable bursts of choral chanting. The climactic battle is given a fun cue too.

Is this film about class? We may never know. There’s certainly something to be said about meeting someone who is literally the same as you, as good as you, but has had a much worse life for no good reason. When Adelaide’s doppelganger Red is furious and spiteful, you kind of get it even though you never root for her. But, the rise of the doubles shouldn’t be taken as a one-to-one allegory for some sort of Marxist revolution. It’s too outlandish – although, this might be what revolutions look like from the business end of the pitchfork.

But, look. This film, though not especially disorientating, is oblique enough that the meaning is up for grabs. So, let’s talk about what we have. Is it as disorientating as a Lost Highway or as scary as a Hereditary? No, but it’s not trying to be, so we shouldn’t punish it for not doing things it’s not trying to do. Instead, it gives us about an hour of great action with believable characters at its heart and a strong strain of visual symbolism that cheerfully throws subtlety to the wind. Whether it’s the two twin ovals that make up the handles of the weaponised scissors or the masks worn by young Jason and his double Pluto (Evan Alex), this film never strays far from ideas of doubles and double identities.

It doesn’t stray far from a joke either, at least not until everything cranks up a few notches at the end. This reflects Peele’s background in comedy. While it’s frustrating that the film can’t just let the tension sit, it is at least clearly a deliberate move. Better yet, it offers us insight into Adelaide’s husband, Gabe (Winston Duke of Black Panther – as the tweet said, “M’Baku can blow m’back out”). He responds to every situation with a joke. His wife tearfully opens up about her PTSD? He makes a joke. Doppelgangers threaten to kill his entire family? He makes a joke. It’s a reflex. While Adelaide makes serious plans, Gabe suggests that they rig the house with traps like in Home Alone. At the end of her tether, Adelaide tells Gabe that he’s not the one who makes decisions anymore. In the apocalypse, gender roles crumble away almost immediately. It’s not that Gabe gets no hero moments, but the film has a clear theme of ‘men ain’t shit.’

All of this culminates memorably in an ending that has proven divisive but, from this reviewer at least, gets a big thumbs-up. Those hoping for the crystal clarity of purpose seen in Get Out might be frustrated by a follow-up that’s unconcerned with saying precisely what it means out loud. But, a horror movie that successfully tells a story of an ambitious scope far beyond what you’d expect of mid-budget Hollywood is only deserving of praise. If you like being spooked and a little confused, definitely check this one out.

Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on WordPress. You can offer monthly support via Patreon.

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