Scalding Hot Takes: Us
I don’t often miss my days as a film critic. I still get to write about movies full-time in my own way, on my own terms, for my own audience rather than being paid a salary by a website or newspaper. So I get to retain a lot of the best elements of my old job and life, without many of the headaches and hassles.
But every once in a while I will experience a powerful shiver of nostalgia for the eighteen year span between 1997 and 2015 when my life revolved around my job reviewing movies. I’ll miss that giddy sense of discovery that comes with the arrival of a genuinely great, important movie, the kind of zeitgeist-capturing cultural event that people talk about with hushed reverence decades later.
I miss, deep down to my soul, that feeling of elation I’d experience sitting in my seat at the Chicago screening room, surrounded by my peers, including giants of field like Roger Ebert, and feeling humbled by the transcendent brilliance of some new cinematic marvel that I was blessed to see before damn near anyone else, for free, in the company of my closest friends and professional colleagues.
There was something magical about experience, the way it embodied in its purest form the transformative power of great film, of great art, really, its ability to take our imaginations into fantastical new realms or comment incisively on the ferociously imperfect world we live in, or, in the case of Us, do both.
Us is, of course, funnyman turned filmmaker Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his 2017 smash Get Out, which won the Academy Award for Best Original screenplay. It’s also the movie everybody is seeing. It’s the movie everybody is talking about. It’s the movie of the moment, a movie that matters, a movie that captures something profound and disturbing about the divided and angry times we uncomfortably inhabit, times so chaotic and raw that they produce nostalgia for earlier, seemingly less complicated times despite knowing full well the cruelty and injustice of our collective past as Americans.
When people daydream about the antebellum South they’re waxing nostalgic for a time when black slaves were legally considered sub-human, 2/3rds a person, less than by virtue of birth and continent of origin. In Get Out and Us, Peele is obsessed with the haves and have nots, the tortured souls who suffer and the pampered, privileged classes that benefit from that suffering.
Our lives of leisure are at least partially made possible by the profound, horrific discomfort of others. We can enjoy our iPhones only if we do not think about children working 16 hour days to make them or our own role in their exploitation
In Get Out as well as Us the distance that allows us to live comfortable lives off the suffering of other collapses to reveal the savage iniquity, the casual evil that we ignore for the sake of not going mad with guilt and self-loathing. Peele knows all about evil: his brother-in-law founded Buzzfeed.
It’s exciting to be having a spirited, culture-wide conversation about the merits, message and significance of a new movie because of its power and depth and cultural relevance rather than the fact that it concludes phase whatever of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after 4,687 movies and sets up the next 1700.
I have been having that conversation inside my head since the moment Us ended. I’ve been having that conversation with my wife as well and now, in the form of this article, I am having that conversation about Us with you.
As in Get Out, Peele does a terrific job grounding the film in the mundane details of everyday life. The relationships between his characters have a wonderfully lived in quality: they’ve clearly known each other for a very long time, and that history, sometimes complicated and painful, sometimes relatively innocent, informs every interaction.
That’s true of the family in the unforgettable sequence that opens the film. Set in 1986 at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, it follows a tired, irritable family as they wander around a low-rent carnival, one of those childhood institutions that are supposed to be innocent delights but feel like low-level nightmares even when you’re having fun.
The father wins the girl a Michael Jackson “Thriller” tee-shirt, causing the mom to complain about the potentially nightmare-inducing nature of the prize. This is clearly not the first conflict of that nature they’ve had and when the mother leaves the daughter in her husband’s distracted care she wanders away, absentmindedly holding Eve’s own candy apply until she comes across a sinister attraction and sees something horrifying that changes her forever in more ways than one.
This perfect, beautifully unnerving set-piece exploits the scuzzy underlying menace of the traveling carnival, that seedy fixture of American life where meth-addled carnies, rusty, dangerous rides, sad, abused animals, unwinnable games, nightmarish imagery involving haunted houses with funhouses mirrors and drunk teenagers getting and receiving hand jobs all join together under the cover of night for the sake of wholesome family fun.
We then leap forward to the uncertain present. The sad-eyed little girl in the “Thriller” tee-shirt has grown up to be Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), a chic, intense mother and wife more than a little unnerved to be returning to the sight of her formative trauma along with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), precocious daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright) and weird, otherworldly son Jason (Alan Alex).
They’re there to relax and enjoy the boardwalk and beach alongside Gabe’s richer, more debauched friend Josh (Tim Heidecker), his wife Kitty (Elizabeth Moss) and their twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon).
An atmosphere of creeping dread pervades even the most routine moments here but when the family is confronted with a horror beyond their imagining, one that seems to implicate them in ways they cannot begin to understand, their lives become a waking nightmare full of images and ideas that are impossible to forget, that lodge themselves somewhere deep and dark in our collective subconsciousness and refuse to leave.
How much did I love Us? I loved it so much, and it made such a profound, positive impact on me that I’ve decided to break with tradition and not spoil the movie even as I suspect that the vast majority of the people reading this have already seen Us during its opening weekend or have read enough about it to have at least a strong sense of what the twist might be. I will only say that the film involves maybe the worst playdate in film history, as some kids hang out together and really don’t get along despite having a whole lot of similarities, at least physically.
That doesn’t matter to me this one time. I went into Us completely blind, knowing only that it was a motion picture, in English and a horror movie. I didn’t even want to watch trailers for it. I benefited from my lack of knowledge and I want that experience for you as well.
Us fucking wrecked me. I have not had as powerful an experience at the movies in a very long time. It scared the shit out of me. It reduced me to a blubbery mess. On the most visceral possible manner, Us is a goddamn triumph, a horror movie that’s terrifying on a primal level.
But it’s equally rich, if not richer, as an intellectual experience, as a sad, haunting meditation on the impossible, violent divide between the haves and have nots. Us is the perfect film for this fractured age, when our country seems on the verge of a Civil War of words and ideas emotions, when we are divided against ourselves and hopelessly detached from our better angels.
That Us works as magnificently as it does is a testament to both Peele’s extraordinary work as a writer and director and to a cast that absolutely nails challenging, complex dual roles. Lupito N’Yongo’s ferociously committed performance, at once terrifying and deeply humane, fierce and utterly unique, lends a concrete emotional reality to the free-floating, all-consuming horror. We believe in the world of Us because we believe N’Yongo. She’s the ultimate unreliable narrator but she seems so real that we’ll follow here wherever she goes. She deserves all of the awards in the world, not just another Oscar.
Duke is similarly splendid. At 6’5, he’s a strapping, strikingly handsome presence but there’s enough dad dorkiness in his performance to render the character relatable. I was a little concerned that the presence of a meta comedy icon like Heidecker in a film this intense and terrifying would be a distraction but he proves himself here to be a great actor as well as a comic genius.
There’s abundant dark humor in Heidecker’s performance and in the film itself, but the bleak laughs do not detract from the horror. If anything, the bleak comedy and the brutal horror complement each other.
At the risk of hyperbole, Peele’s total control of the elements of cinema, his precocious mastery of the form reminded me at times of the films of Stanley Kubrick, particularly The Shining. Like The Shining, another strong contender for scariest movie of all time, everything in Us feels incredibly deliberate. Us feels realized down to a molecular level.
Like The Shining, Us could probably inspire a cult documentary where various eccentrics each offer highly passionate, idiosyncratic and extremely personal theories as to Us’ ultimate meaning. Only in this case, they might actually be on to something because Peele not only introduces but develops so many provocative ideas that his politically and socially loaded shocker could undoubtedly support any number of wildly different readings.
I do not use this phrase lightly but only two films into what is shaping up to be an extraordinary career as a filmmaker Peele has established himself as a true Frightmaster. He’s also unmistakably an auteur but that, to me, is less impressive than being a frightmaster. Peele knows how to scare the holy living fuck out of us. Even more impressively, he knows how to make us think. Judging by the deluge of think-pieces it has already inspired he might just know how to make us over-think as well but whether you love Us or hate it or fall somewhere in the middle we can all agree that it is definitely about Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landing. Or maybe I’m confusing it with another film.
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