Film Review: Us

Jordan’s Jeremiad: Bunnies, Ballerinas – and the Revenge of the Underclass?

OK, I admit it – I’m a cinematic scaredy-cat. Ever since small kid days, horror movies have frightened the hell out of me. The last one I went to see was a 2018 LA Film Festival screening of Spell, which I saw because it was set and shot on location in Iceland, a country I’ve only seen from the sky and am interested in. To tell you the truth, I did manage to get through it sans any nightmares, night terrors and the like – but I still wasn’t prepared for what writer/director/producer Jordan Peele had in store for us in the terrifying Us.

To tell you the truth, I would never have bought a ticket to see this horror-fest, but because I was invited to a private critics’ screening I screwed up my courage, bit the bullet, went to see it – and boy am I glad I did. Us may be creepy, but man, is it GRRREAT!

I don’t want to reveal any plot spoilers, so suffice it to say that the plot involves deranged doppelgangers wreaking mayhem on the family of Adelaide (Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, the Star Wars franchise) and Gabriel Wilson (Winston Duke who, like Lupita, co-stars in 2018’s Black Panther). Like the other thesps, they also play their alter egos assaulting them. Are these doubles clones? Zombies? Or what?

Why are the Wilsons and their children suddenly beset by ghoulish others? What crime and/or sin did they commit to deserve this creepy fate? They are not overtly bad people but it seems that they are guilty of the same “offenses” as Tippi Hedren’s character Melanie Daniels (and perhaps the other Homo sapiens) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 The Birds (the first great eco film): Complacency, egoism, a thoughtless pursuit of consumerism. If in Hitch’s classic it’s our winged, feathery friends who suffer from humanity’s slights, oversights and then rebel, in Us it is creatures who rather chillingly identify themselves at one point as – well, if you want to find out exactly how the creatures define themselves, Dear Reader, you’ll just have to strap on a proverbial pair and go see this chilling picture. That line alone is worth the price of admission or a bag of popcorn to munch, and it just about says it all.

Peele’s 2017 directorial debut Get Out (which earned him the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, plus the film three noms, including for Best Picture and Best Director) was widely interpreted as a rumination on racism. One could also argue that Us has a racial angle along the lines of the Black upper middle class turning its collective back on or at least neglecting their impoverished brothers and sisters left behind by more affluent America as the buppies blithely pursue America’s brass ring. This tension was, for example, explored in John Singleton’s 1993 feature Poetic Justice starring Janet Jackson as a gifted poetess who, as I recall, was urged not to let poor Black criminal characters from the ‘hood hold her back or down on her upward path towards success.

But this is too simple an explanation for the onslaught that befalls Us’ characters and Us is not solely a “Black-buster.” The same trajectory befalls the Wilsons’ white friends – whom they’ve been playing “keeping up with the Joneses” in their materialistic, status-oriented world that includes competing over boats, cars and a nip and tuck here and there. The Tylers are portrayed by The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss (here, the Mad Men co-star becomes a full on madwoman in her other role, wherein she arguably delivers the feature’s best bit of acting) as Kitty and Tom Heidecker as Josh. The same destiny hits the Tylers and their two teenage daughters from hell – so Us seems to be more about class than race, per se. And, if you haven’t run screaming like a banshee from the theater yet, you’ll see that impending doom spread far beyond the Santa Cruz sea- and landscape (similar to Hitch’s California locations in The Birds), where the story is set.

BTW, there’s some drollery in how the Tylers use their “Siri” like virtual assistant. The choices of music not only set the mood but enhance the action with some much-needed comic relief while the Tylers’ computerized valet underscores the theme of heedless, mindless materialism at their home away from home.

I think the key to the torturous inner meanings of Us can be found in an Old Testament admonition brandished by a longhaired homeless man who actually, if you look closely enough, resembles an Old Testament prophet such as Jeremiah, who issued those thunderous Jeremiads warning of impending disasters.

I interpret the creatures’ bizarre actions as metaphors in the Jean Genet and Luis Bunuel tradition of absurdist and surreal symbols as representing the uprising of the underclass, exacting revenge by the have-nots on the haves for callously being excluded by them. As Chairman Mao put it in “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”, March 1927, Selected Works, Vol. I, page 28:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

What would have made Us a more explicitly revolutionary movie would have been if the creatures stormed the mansions of the 1 percenters – say, starting with raiding the Trump White House – instead of the summer homes of upper middle class of individuals whose jobs are never made explicitly clear.

Us also uses other allegories, among them hares – mostly white rabbits. Perhaps this is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (and perhaps to Jefferson Airplane’s exhilarating druggy anthem, White Rabbit?). There are certainly enough Mad Hatter-type characters in this surrealistic saga to go around.

As for other symbols, such as the ballerina – your guess is good as mine. As this is a horror movie, there are more twists and turns than on the road to Hana, Maui but your risk spoiler averse reviewer won’t ruin any surprises – just keep your peepers Jordan-Peeled (if you dare!).

A word about Us’ treatment of Black Men: Duke, who played the man-ape M’Baku in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther (wherein he is almost trampled by a white rhinoceros – not by a white rabbit), has an imposing physique and height. Yet, he is largely ineffective in Us when fighting the Wilsons’ enemies. His Panther c-star Lupito is far more lethal when doing battle. Nowadays, we keep hearing about how African American women are such an important demographic in U.S. politics and are such a potent voting bloc, et al. This may very well be true and accurate and more power to them sisters – but is there a way to extol one group’s virtues without (unintentionally or perhaps intentionally) slighting another? Sometimes it seems that this is once again being used as a way to insult and degrade African American species, and Duke’s emasculation seems to be part of this trend.

What does the movie’s name mean? That we are supposed to all be in it together – but far too many of us have been discarded and left out of the American Dream, turning it into a nightmare for the underclass who eventually exact vengeance on their “betters,” once the proverbial worm turns? Maybe “Us” actually refers to “US” as in: United States???

Peele’s title reminded this film historian of the odd slogan chillingly chanted in Todd Browning’s 1932 preternaturally creepy Freaks: “One of us! One of us! Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble!” I have no idea what that freak show motto meant but Freaks is far more bloodcurdling and deeply disturbing (it’s almost unwatchable for this coward) than Browning’s 1931 Dracula starring one of the immortal Universal Classic Monsters, that bloodsucker-in-chief, Bela Lugosi.

However, having said all this, Us is a wild ride, as thought-provoking as it is hair-raising. Us is a textbook study in how genre films can manifest hidden meanings and messages that speak to us in code (perhaps here, in Elisabeth Moss Code). Us is a warning of Biblical proportions against continuing to ignore the least of these among us, for as Jesus said, one day, “The last shall be first” (and they might do so by any means necessary). Judgment Day is a-coming!

Universal Pictures’ Us is two terrifying hours long and opens March 22. I’ll never pick up a pair of scissors the same way again for the rest of my life. This flick is “rated” OMG for: Oh My Ghoul! Be there or be scared!

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