Director: Jordan Peele
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Shahadi Wright Joseph
Runtime: 116 mins.
Australian release date: 28 March 2019
Previewed at: UPI theatrette, Sydney, on 20 March 2019.
‘Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.’ Jeremiah 11:11
Making a follow-up to a debut film that was a critical and box-office success is just as difficult as the ‘second album syndrome’ that is a recognised phenomenon in the music industry. In this case, Jordan Peele has almost pulled it off but, it has to be acknowledged, Us doesn’t quite reach the psychological heights of Get Out although the director/writer has given it a red-hot go. The same social conscience is evident in this sophomore movie’s sub-text, it’s just not as overt as it was in the first film... and a bit more perplexing. Peele’s wild sense of humour is still there though - amped up, if anything. A lot of Us will have you chuckling as much as cowering.
Beginning at a fun fair in Santa Cruz, California, in 1986, we follow a young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry) as she wanders away from her parents and enters a sideshow alley tent on the beach, where she has an eerie encounter. Cut to the modern-day and the now adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), are heading for their lakeside holiday house for vacation. When Gabe suggests they have a day at the beach - Santa Cruz, of course - Adelaide tries to talk him out of it but ultimately agrees. There, they catch up with their kitschy friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elizabeth Moss) and their daughters before Jason wanders off to check out a strange man on the beach. Back home that night, the family are disturbed by the appearance of a group of four people standing silently in their driveway, who, when they get up close and personal, are revealed to be their doppelgängers. And they haven’t come to borrow a cup of sugar! When asked who they are, the answer is as scary as they are. “We’re Americans.”
It’s a great idea for a horror film and it’s certainly not the first time that doppelgängers, doubles or look-alikes have been the basis for a movie plot; they are often harbingers of something terrible about to occur. The principle cast members seem to have had a great time playing good and bad versions of themselves, especially Nyong’o, who’s simply extraordinary as the sweet, loving Adelaide and her terrifying alter ego, Red. Her face and voice change dramatically but it all seems to be down to her acting abilities, rather that cinematic trickery. The 13-year-old Shahadi Wright Joseph is very creepy, too, as Umbrae, her evil double. Winston Duke gets most of the comedic lines; his Gabe is a chilled kind of guy who has trouble accepting the weird things going on around them. Once again, as in Get Out, the suitably eclectic score has been provided by composer Michael Abels, and it’s an important element of the film. The screenplay is solid for the most part but the twist at the end is not entirely satisfying. One thing that’s unusual about it though, at least for an American movie, is that, when the slaughter begins, there’s not a single use of a firearm. Now that’s original!
Talking about the genesis of his idea for Us, Peele says, “At some point I ask myself, ‘What’s the scariest thing for me, personally?’ In this case it was the idea of seeing myself. And then I think about what that’s really about, about why seeing yourself is so scary. No one really wants to look at their faults, their guilt, their demons. We all want to look elsewhere.” He goes on to explain this is a notion that is an endemic part of American culture (although not confined to the USA: the inclination to project people’s fears, anxieties and anger outward on to ‘The Other’ is widespread in Australia, too). “This country, and how this country looks at the world, we have a fear of the outsider,” Peele says. “It’s built into the fear of everything from terrorism to immigration.” Put another way, when we take a good, long, hard look at ourselves, we may just not like what we see; kind of like the warped reflection we see when we walk into the Hall of Mirrors at the Easter Show. Is that Us?