US— 4 STARS
Let’s get a few things straight about the feverish anticipation surrounding Jordan Peele’s newest feature film Us. First, the less you know the better. The clues and whiffs in the trailers, though shuffled around, show too much. There is a wealth of unrevealed context behind them and its best to absorb and discover all that raw and first-hand. Second, don’t attach any of your expectations to Peele’s monster hit Get Out. This is an entirely unique film with different tones, scopes, and concepts. Lastly, you will never hear Luniz’s old school platinum classic “I Got 5 on It” the same way ever again in your life. In honor of that 1995 hip-hop relic, a quintet of life lessons will be offered to satiate that fever.
LESSON #1: STICK WITH FAMILY — Ask any parent or child for a traumatic experience that is easy to recall and they may just tell you something about being separated, missing, or lost from their child or parent for a time. That fear is vivid for both parties. The closeness of family is meant to be a unit of protection and defense. The commands of family to stick together are paramount in importance and safety.
When Adelaide Wilson was young, she had one such agonizing episode when curiously wandering off from her parents at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park and into a shady beachfront funhouse of mirrors. What the girl experienced in there secretly distresses her to the present day, now embodied by 12 Years a Slave Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o as an adult and mother now. Accompanying her bespectacled, burly, and impressionable husband Gabe (Black Panther scene-stealer Winston Duke) and two children Zora and Jason (feature debuting newcomers Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), Adelaide is returning to her family’s old vacation home near Santa Cruz in the name and hope of summer relaxation.
The trouble is this whole area still reignites disturbance, and more peculiar in dichotomy, an unexplainable and unwelcome draw of connection for Adelaide. When Jason nearly repeats his mother’s separation on the same beach, Adelaide finally reveals her past trauma to Gabe to explain her frazzled emotions. That night, a gathering of four frightful silhouettes, each oddly matching the size and gender of each member of the Wilson clan, appear backlit in the dark at the end of the driveway outside. With no motive and no yielding to verbal threats, they spring forward to mobilize a violent home invasion.
LESSON #2: THE DEFINITION OF “DOPPELGANGER” — When the faces on these matching sizes of man, woman, and child come into view, the coincidences line up. Ominous and distorted twins of Adelaide, Gabe, Zora, and Jason are what have arrived. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this lesson’s folklore term with German roots as a “ghostly counterpart of a living person.” Imagine the fear this would bring if the phenomenon were real. Us plays out that drama where “not feeling like yourself” or “finding yourself” have new grotesque wrinkles.
LESSON #3: HAVE PRACTICALITY IN SURVIVAL SITUATIONS — A high complement to both the smarts and humor of Us is how the characters approach and handle the perilous life and death situations that follow. For as much as the crushing panic is real, so are moments the WTF befuddlement and fight-or-flight rage. Do what they do and scream later. Grab an improvised weapon, follow Lesson #1, and be ready to protect yourself and save your family.
The biting boisterousness of Us often comes forth from the dual performances of the core ensemble, which also includes The Handmaid’s Tale Golden Globe winner Elisabeth Moss (who has dove into doppelgangers before with the underseen and highly recommended Netflix gem The One I Love) and Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric comedy fame as the Wilsons’ more well-offed and prissy neighbors. Getting to play one role straight and one unhinged, with the respective wringers that accompanied those halves, had to be a blast for the actors. More than just amusing, the talent range on display is intense and impressive. It doesn’t matter if it’s early in the new awards year, the dire extremes mixed by Lupita Nyong’o make for an immediately Oscar-worthy performance. She is colossal with every twitchy nerve.
LESSON #4: THE SOLEMN DECLARATIONS OF JEREMIAH 11:11 — Even more towering are the deeper narrative implications. Pick your Bible translation of choice to digest this dropped prophecy from the film. The casual New Living Translation reads:
Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I am going to bring calamity upon them, and they will not escape. Though they beg for mercy, I will not listen to their cries.
No matter how it is stated from the historical of the King James Version to the extra fluff of The Message, the harrowing heft of being tested by God is there and very telling to what transpires in Us.
The artistic prowess of Us jumps off the screen more than audiences from their seat cushions. Immersive and powerful, Michael Abels’ eerie and scattered symphony of strings isn’t simply spooky. It’s downright sinister and unsettling nightmare fuel. The combination of Nicholas Monsour’s patient editing and the cunning shot selection of Glass cinematographer Mike Gioulakis works overtime to cloak coming threats and spring them into your face with curdling jolts, even when you know they’re coming. Between each of those sensory palettes, the unified pace and tone of Us rises from steady goosebumps to an unrelenting heart attack before its over.
LESSON #5: THE DEFINITION AND IMPLICATIONS OF THE PRONOUN “US” — The significance of the film’s chosen two-letter title percolates reflection with Lesson #2. The objective case of the word “we” can denote personal togetherness, welcoming or relative inclusion, unified effort, shared spaces, and common fates. Twist it with constriction and you have Us’s term of “tethered.” Cement it with power and you have harmony. Destroy it and you have confusion, disconnectedness, irregularity, and, dare I say, freedom.
One’s communal theater experience and entertainment value is addictively fed and your mind will race afterword, preserving the impact for even more internalization, compartmentalization, and surprise. That said, what do these lessons and all of this in Us mean? That’s the parting challenge of the film, especially with a pumped brake and uncharacteristic moment of over-explanation in the final act. After a length of film splendidly shrouded in complete mystery, offering answers is appreciated, but somewhat unnecessary and even problematic. Once one thing is explained, then nearly everything begs that same treatment. Any unrevealed bits become hangups to question against the morsels of meaning that were shared. Had the origins and twists of Us stayed completely concealed, the mental knockout would be even greater.
For those that leave the film a shade (OK, quite a bit) foggy, read Jordan Peele’s own words on the film’s intended commentary. All of this is his brainchild and execution. The highest compliments are reserved for him. At the film’s SXSW premiere, the filmmaker relayed this:
“This movie is about this country. We’re in a time where we fear the other, whether it’s the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us and take our jobs, or the faction we don’t live near, who voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil, it’s us.”
If that doesn’t expand the buzz of the mindf — k at hand, nothing will. Keep Peele’s targeted purpose in mind when you dig into Us for what you can extract. Open your perceptions and hold your s — t together.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#770)