With Us, Peele has utilized those same main ingredients as in his debut feature, in varying quantities, to deliver another tasty piece of film to be enjoyed, albeit one that is less potent, precise and powerful.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a genre cocktail whose main ingredients were horror tropes, satirical social-commentary, racial liberation, sublime acting, thriller set-piece, and tonal flexibility. When hypnotically stirred, it left you entranced, a prisoner to the (and here’s the cocktail’s name) Pulped Fiction. Its bits stuck in your gums long after the last gulp. With Us, Peele has utilised those same main ingredients in varied quantities to deliver another tasty piece of film to be enjoyed, albeit one that is less potent, precise and powerful.
Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and husband Gabe (Winston Duke) have brought their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to a summer home for family time and pithy in-fighting. Gabe wants to go further afield than usual and head to Santa Cruz boardwalk and beach, but Adelaide rebukes the idea for her debilitating mentality whenever she thinks of that beach – where she got lost from her parents as a child and briefly met her doppelganger. PTSD wracks her peace and her parenting as she’s fearful of losing her own children.
The opening scene of a young Adelaide losing herself in a house of mirrors beneath a busy carnival boardwalk captures that childhood battle of curiosity vs fear. It’s a rite of passage to lose your parents in a shop (I often got lost between clothes racks in Primark as a kid) or a theme park. But what effect would it have upon you to see yourself staring back, not a cold reflection through a looking-glass but toe-to-toe, warm breath on your nose? Lupita Nyongo’s eyes are doorways to her anxieties and fears, articulate in their scanning of the beach (she was guilt-tripped) she thinks Jason may be lost on.
The setting of the stage takes its time, showing poise in the Wilson family’s idiosyncrasies. These origins are placed carefully by Peele as he will inevitably reveal the shadows behind the scenery. This allegory is the crux of Us. What we have, what we are, what we say, comes from another place that not even we ourselves can physically see. It threatens our neatly presented facades with the sneering reality. The first scene that ramps up the horror and allows Peele to reveal his penchant for the predecessors of the genre is when the Wilson’s discover a family of four, silently stood hand in hand on their driveway.
A home invasion is inevitable and certainly feasible as the Wilson’s are clearly affluent – another way Peele plays with expectation and honours Black America, which we rarely see as middle-class in film – but the reason for the siege is far more sinister than being desirous of material possessions. It is more in the way of Get Out in that it’s a desire for possession of mortal material. With the imposters inside the house, the Wilsons’ world fractures, like how one crack in a mirror branches into more. Peele’s screenplay foregoes the Alice in Wonderland conceit of being torn into a world unknown, but rather Wonderland rises up, releasing its obscurity and caricatures onto Alice (Adelaide). Through the looking-glass, indeed.
As the film’s narrative is Peele’d (sorry) away, revealing yet more revelations that dare to hold that cracking mirror to our woeful world, our wants and desires, or those so precious to the American Dream, I would do a disservice in discussing any more of the plot. As the shocks are reeled off, played wonderfully by a sterling cast who have no problem veering off into the comedic releases of tension, though none of the humor comes close to being as funny as that in Get Out. Us has much more on the line, the stakes bear grand repercussions toward society over the inner workings of one insidious family, but I didn’t feel as tethered to them here.
There are some harrowing and even fun set-pieces, the best certainly saved for last and edited to perfection by Nicholas Monsour. Most of these set-pieces (an inspired coalescence of the Beach Boys and NWA nab one) are subject to another creeping Michael Abels score. The mystery that Peele presents (answers to the “how’s” and the “why’s” are tantalizingly unanswered until the third act) is emboldened by Abel’s erratic soundscape that fulfills the genre traditions whilst matching the wonderfully weird and the ominous originality.
In a film that deals with doppelgangers, or imposters, there is obviously much duality to be seen and felt. Though there is a true feeling of the film’s own spirit that’s missing and thus leads to the weaker connection. Peele’s watermark is, for all of the fears of individual identity that comes with the territory, he can drag larger social worries into the fray. Are we ever truly happy with our lot? Do we deserve it in the first place? Will there always be an annoyingly shallow white family with more? (Yup). Will the foundations America was settled upon endure the equality striven for? The propulsive pace races through these ideas but unfortunately never wrings them for all their worth. The conceptual nature of Us perhaps would have been better fitted to Peele’s upcoming take on one of the most influential pieces of art on his work, The Twilight Zone.
Us is a concoction that is undoubtedly tasty but I don’t think I’m going to have the hangover I did with its predecessor. It doesn’t quite capitalize on all of the socio-political themes raised. It’s paranoia, mania and thrills are clear symptoms of a nightmare not-quite realizing its ****-inducing prophecy. This is no second-film slouch but we aren’t still in the honeymoon stage either. Jordan Peele is passionately trying to wrestle racism, inequality, systematic prejudices, et al, with the lovingly conjoined arms of a family unit, refracted through the prism of the horror genre. That’s no small feat. The film industry and us, as more empathic and demanding an audience, are lucky to have the morose mind of Peele, the puppeteering pariah of contemporary fear and loathing. Queue The Twilight Zone theme.
Aaron studies Creative and Professional Writing at Bangor University and is Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut and Nation. He is also a Young Critic for the Arts Council of Wales.