Us

 

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Jordan Peele’s second stab at the horror genre is weird and unsettling, if not as scary as he would like.

   

Us

Double take: Lupita Nyong'o 

 

There are horror films and then there are horror films directed by Jordan Peele. Most multiplex horror these days presents us with a variation on a theme. If it’s not a dark-haired girl materialising from the shadows of an old house, it’s a familiar figure turned bad: the babysitter, mistress, cop, stepfather and so on. Jordan Peele, who transmogrified the genre with his chilling satire on racism, Get Out (2017), won the Oscar for best original screenplay, becoming the first black man to do so. He has already proved that he is no journeyman filmmaker and Us, which he directs from his own screenplay, again stylishly sidesteps the tropes of the genre. The mandatory prologue doesn’t assault us with a grisly murder, but presents a family day out at a seaside resort in Santa Cruz, California. The worst aspect of this scene is that our young heroine, Adelaide (Maddison Curry), is sporting a Michael Jackson T-shirt. But it gets worse. She drops her toffee apple in the sand and wanders into a hall of mirrors emblazoned with the neon legend, ‘Find Yourself.’ She actually finds herself alone and in the dark. Then she encounters herself – and it isn’t a reflection.

 

It is an intriguing premise to come across an exact facsimile of oneself. To quote Maisie Williams in Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014), we are three people in one: the person we think we are, the person other people think we are and the person we really are. Jordan Peele plays with this aspect of our identity, but is more interested in toying with the genre – and with our nerve endings. Following the film’s prologue, squarely set in 1986, he moves the action to the present day where we meet the grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke, made up to look like the director) and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). As they arrive at their lakeside home in the country, the film presents a typical American family on vacation. However, they haven’t been there long when they are paid a nighttime visit by four strangers who proceed to break into their house.

 

The influences of Jordan Peele’s tale are manifold, but none more so than Michael Haneke’s psychological masterpiece Funny Games (1997), in which a family at their lakeside holiday home are brutalised by intruders. Contrarily, Peele, a comedian in his former life, likes to play with our emotions in a more mischievous manner. The interlopers are exact replicas of their prey – a man and woman and their two children – albeit with voices dredged up from another realm. When Adelaide entreats her doppelgänger, “What are you people?”, the latter replies earnestly, “We are Americans!” If that isn’t a neat riff on an age-old racist question, nothing is. Even the fact that this family is black, at the centre of a mainstream horror film, is a huge leap forward for diversity in Hollywood. Their neighbours, in the traditionally subordinate roles, are played by white actors and when, they too, are visited upon, the scene changes to black farce (pun unintended). Calling on their virtual assistant (Ophelia, standing in for Siri) to ring the police, the family is treated to a deafening rendition of N.W.A's 'Fuck tha Police'. It’s a riot.

 

In its last act, Us segues from siege nightmare to something a little more unwieldy, not to say overblown. Whereas before, the film was weird, unsettling and often funny, the ending ties itself up in knots in an epic dose of exposition. Jordan Peele should have spared himself the money. His home-invasion thriller was already light years ahead of such similar efforts as The Strangers (2008) and Trespass (2011) and with its visual flourish and cinematic in-jokes, it should have been content with that.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Maddison Curry.

 

Dir Jordan Peele, Pro Jordan Peele, Jason Blum, Ian Cooper and Sean McKittrick, Screenplay Jordan Peele, Ph Mike Gioulakis, Pro Des Ruth De Jong, Ed Nicholas Monsour, Music Michael Abels, Costumes Kym Barrett.

 

Monkeypaw Productions-Universal Pictures.

116 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 22 March 2019. Cert. 15.