Scattered Thoughts on Us

March 24, 2019

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There will be spoilers, so go see the movie before you read any further.  The movie is definitely worth seeing.

A Brief Introduction

Jordan Peel’s Get Out is one of the most genuinely exciting cultural phenomena to come out in recent years, and deservedly so.  It’s a tricky high-concept horror that resonates, saying nothing of its status as one of the increasingly rare original IP successes in Hollywood.   It was also used as a prime example in the loathsome phenomenon of supposed “elevated horror”, as though horror itself is too lowly a genre to contain high concepts.  Peele himself would balk at the notion, and it is no disservice to the film that it was labeled as such, but there is an element of intellectualism that pervades Get Out that meant it never fully succeeded as a visceral horror film.  If one is spending time considering the metaphorical implications – in essence, attempting to decipher the film as it is happening – the gut reaction can be lost.  That could also, in all honesty, just be a jaded filmgoer who has seen so many horror films that they virtually all fail to deliver on that level. 

Sitting Down and Explaining, Explained

Us has a similar issue, though without the welcome clarity that pervaded Get Out.  In the end, that film had a single conceit behind it, and though it wasn’t explored simply, it did lend itself to a satisfying through line all the way to its conclusion.  Us is far more knotty, and it does admittedly have a heavier expository burden early on for any of the following action to make sense.  It is ostensibly laid out at the beginning of the second act, when what looks to be the beginning of a home invasion sequence resolves quite quickly, for a sit down explanation.  Red, Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) doppelgänger explains the “shadows” and how they are tethered to their counterpart on the surface, and the almost matter-of-fact reactions of the Wilson family, including some comic relief from Winston Duke, diffuses the tension while we try to come to terms with the logic (not to mention logistics) of the world.  It’s a problem that could have perhaps been handled more elegantly, but then again, it’s a lot to take in no matter what.  The real surprise comes when we visit the summer rental of the family friends, when their Shadows come in and kill them almost immediately.  Suddenly the world opens up, but more importantly, we’re treated to a tremendous sequence of suspense that anchors the film.  It is the most “audience-friendly” act in the movie.  It’s also the most rompy, which is probably not a coincidence.  There was never any point where I really thought any of the Wilson family were actually going to die.  This is something that might hurt the film on that visceral level while you’re watching it, but what the film pulls off in the third act makes it a moot point. 

That Third Act

Whereas the Second Act began with the sit down exposition dump, the Third Act arguably climaxes with a smaller, more emotional one, intercut with flashbacks that explain and explain, albeit in a far more artful manner.  This is followed by the final fight (beautifully staged and choreographed), and for the most part, that’s it.  The bulk of the film is bracketed by exposition, and if the second doesn’t add much new, but rather clarifies (we see that the Shadows are acting out precisely what is going on above, and we understand the rabbits).  It’s a smart way to structure a film, and though a thousand questions remain, the practicalities of these things aren’t as important as what they mean.  It’s why this sort of thing worked so well in The Twilight Zone, as those never had to sustain a full length story (even the film was famously split up into four separate segments) (and it hasn’t escaped me that Peele is hosting the latest reboot) so you can sit there for 22 minutes trying to figure out why such strange things were happening and then you have the reveal, the “ooh wow” moment, and then you are free to stew on the meaning.  This is largely what undercuts the film as a straight forwardly affecting (read: crowd pleasing) horror film, but might explain why it hasn’t left my mind since leaving the theater.  Well, that, and the twist.

Lupita Lupita Lupita

This is, incredibly, Lupita Nyong’o’s first leading role in a film.  It speaks volumes about Hollywood that it took 5 years from 12 Years a Slave for an Oscar winner of other-worldly beauty to get a leading role, and if I were gracious I’d suggest maybe she was being selective with what she did (playing the mom in Queen of Katwe, an excellent film many slept on, or the love interest/head spy in Black Panther), but let’s be honest.  As frustrating as that is, we still have the work in front of us, and what work it is.  Playing a dual role is meaty for any actor, and the crazed expression of Red (Nyong’o is incredible with her eyes) still doesn’t prepare for the throaty, guttural voice when it comes.  Even more than that, there’s the twist, which recontextualizes the whole performance.  She was also strange and uneasy, though oddly understanding, which is partially explained by the childhood PTSD but when the twist comes, both performances make an emotional sense that hasn’t left me.  And this is the key, perhaps, to why Us will have legs in my memory:  the childhood switch and the life of Red is genuinely horrific, and I can’t shake it.  It’s precisely what we want horror to deliver, and it doesn’t turn the knife until the very last minute.  It’s early in the year, but it’s the performance to beat.

What’s a Metaphor etc

Of course, the other reason this movie will likely live on (perhaps not in terms of box office or possibly even as well remembered by fans, but certainly among the cinephile community) is the elasticity of its metaphors.  Whereas Get Out was fairly easy to pin down (again, even though it was multi-faceted in its commentary), Us is difficult to pin down.  It lends itself to readings that may or may not be there, and Peele is canny enough to shove so many references throughout he’s inviting that kind of Reddit thread dissection.  I could go further into that (the jump suits have got to be reference to Metropolis, right?), but suffice it to say that it is a rich text, and one that, after the fact, doesn’t do a disservice to the emotional impact, even if that too was delayed.  It’s the kind of film with longevity, and one deserving of all those rewatches and tedious message board threads.  A little scattershot, a little rough, but beautifully so. 

 

-M

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