Written and directed by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke
Classification: 14A; 116 minutes
In his 1983 stand-up comedy special Delirious, Eddie Murphy struts the stage in Thriller-era red leathers and ponders why, precisely, white families in horror movies bother lingering in haunted houses. Black people, in Murphy’s estimation, would immediately beat a hasty retreat at the slightest inkling of a forbidding presence. The story goes that Murphy’s joke – and in particular his imagined ghost’s warning to “get out”– planted a seed in the fertile mind of comedian-turned-master-of-horror Jordan Peele.
Peele’s remarkable 2017 feature film debut offered a sophisticated response to Murphy’s challenge. Black people, Get Out argued, can’t simply vacate the proverbial premises because the conditions of their entrapment are present even in the sunny-seeming setting of a superficially welcoming, allegedly “postracial” America. Conceived during the Obama administration but premiering days after the Trump inauguration, Get Out’s premise, and its ability to deliver on it with finely calibrated scares, haunting imagery, and canny satire, hammered a chord. The film minted a fortune, earned accolades (including a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Peele), and instantly enmeshed itself in the contemporary cultural vocabulary. For as long as there are people writing about horror, and satire, and race in America, there will be people writing about Get Out.
Expectations for Peele’s follow-up were skewed accordingly. Yet any rumours that his sophomore outing, Us, is “just” a straight-ahead scare-fest seem exaggerated. Although it is foremost a highly entertaining and well-executed horror movie, Us is shot through with its own strain of social criticism. Here the subject is not race, but class, with the film introducing an underworld of voiceless doppelgangers armed with lethal scissors and clad in blood-red onesies that recall, all at once, prison uniforms, working class coveralls and, yes, Delirious-era Murphy.
The film opens on the Santa Cruz boardwalk circa 1986, where a father wins a prize (a baggy Thriller T-shirt, no less – here Peele lucks into his zeitgeistiness) for his young daughter. Ignored by her quarrelling parents, the child ambles into a hall of mirrors, where she meets another a girl, who appears to be her exact double. Cut to 30 years later, and the girl is now a married mother of two played by Lupita Nyong’o, back in sunny Santa Cruz for a beach holiday with her own family. In a film abounding with imagery of doubles, mirrors, rhymes and reflections, it should be no surprise that history repeats itself, with Nyong’o’s young son wandering near the same carnival attraction, and baiting a clan of (almost) exact doubles of his entire family back to their beach house.
From here, Peele develops a genuinely thrilling, heart-in-the-throat-scary horror picture. The archly creepy doubles – called “the Tethered,” after the manner in which they are existentially bound to their above-ground versions, like shadows – are a monster worthy of the Universal logo that precedes the film’s opening titles. Peele exhibits a mastery of his camera, of managing suspense, and of teasing (and rewarding) the intimation of violence. He’s also an exceptionally talented director of actors. Nyong’o’s physicality in her dual role as both herself and her Tether is revelatory. (Also excellent: Winston Duke as her husband, whose manner suggests a burlier on-screen surrogate for Peele himself; and Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss as their gaucher, more garishly wealthy friends.)
Peele possesses a distinct talent for handling horror and comedy simultaneously, such that jokes landing in the midst of sustained suspense and wanton violence feel both natural and cathartic. There are multiple scenes in which pitched screams descend into fits of laughter, which feels like as fine a trademark for writer/director/producer Peele as his recurring image of a single tear dripping down a face seized by abject terror.
Strangely, this sophomore effort feels like more of a proverbial “calling card picture” than Get Out. It’s as if Peele, rattled by his own hype, is straining to show what he can do as a straight-ahead craftsman, absent all the talk of him being a generational talent with a gift for articulating the issues vexing America. The film’s critique of classism – present not only in the central family’s war against the Tethered, but their hostility toward Heidecker and Moss’s family, with their Botox and smart-home and more souped-up holiday boat rental – is undercooked. In Get Out, the terror, the comedy, and the commentary all felt as if they were producing one another. With Us, it’s as if Peele is struggling to find a contemporary issue onto which he can overlay his horror movie. (You can’t spell “Us” without “U.S.,” and so on.)
Add to this the film’s belaboured mise-en-scène, which telescopes its themes without anything in the way of subtlety. An opening sequence depicting an 80s-vintage home entertainment console adorned with VHS tapes of C.H.U.D., The Goonies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Man With Two Brains (in which Steve Martin is telepathically linked with a separate brain), serve to twitchily wink at the film’s notion of a bifurcated underworld/overworld structure. Such touches might dazzle in their initial density and deliberateness, but they’re unlikely to generate much in the way of analysis outside of dopey “20 Things You Might Have Missed In Us” YouTube videos.
These are not the markers of a bad film – or a bad filmmaker – by any stretch. But where Get Out felt urgent and preternaturally confident, Us is the work of a gifted director who seems to be compensating for having less to say by overstating how he says it. Peele knows his horror movie canon well enough to realize that the best cheapo fright flicks are not only scary and fun, but shaggy enough to invite interpretation, instead of issuing preachy messaging about The State Of The World Today.
In place of the hushed voices of his debut (or of Murphy’s inciting Delirious joke), you can almost hear Peele goading his audience with Us. It’s less “get out” and more “get it?”
Us opens March 22