Sunday, March 24, 2019

Review: Jordan Peele's "Us" may just turn the man into a brand

Us Review

"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 harken unto them"
                                                                          - Jeremiah 11:11

So says the Bible verse of the book of Jeremiah, which a man has on a sign in Jordan Peele's new movie, "Us." The numbers 11:11 together throughout the movie. Such words are filled with retribution, which is one thing "Us" very much deals in. The movie feels very Old Testament, so why not include an Old Testament verse? But "Us" is so much more than that. It's a movie I haven't been able to shake since getting home from it this afternoon. I didn't really know how to approach this review. I feel like I should see it one more time before writing this. But as a father of a 9-month-old, getting out of the house isn't as easy as it used to be (not that I'm complaining). But on another level, its tough to really grasp the importance of Peele's new movie. The horror genre isn't everyone's cup of tea, to how to explain that this horror movie in particular is a movie every American owes themselves to see?

I'd love to get one more look at this movie though. Heck, I'd pay extra to have an entire auditorium to myself and have the luxury of pausing the movie at each frame. Just so I could really soak up everything Peele puts on the screen. In the opening moments of the film, all we see is a television screen. Or so we think. In fact, everything you need to decode what Peele is trying to explain with his new movie can be found in this opening scene. It's not an accident that this scene takes place during Ronald Reagan's era. It's not an accident that we get a thorough explanation of the Hands Across America movement of 1986. It's not an accident that VHS copies of "The Goonies," "C.H.U.D." and "The Man With Two Brains" are clearly visible on the shelf next to the TV. It's definitely not an accident that the camera is taking its sweet time zooming in on the TV screen, its almost as if Peele wants your eyes to go wild scanning everything you can. The girl watching the TV is Adelaide Wilson and she's about to go on a trip to Santa Cruz. A trip that will leave her traumatized.

We eventually catch up with Adelaide as an adult, played by Lupita Nyong'o. She, along with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi White Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) are headed to their beach house, which is close to Santa Cruz. Adelaide doesn't mind the vacation, but she doesn't want to go to the beach. What happened to her there is too much to bare, even though she never explains why that is to her family. Eventually though, Adelaide caves, and her family does go to the beach. But they don't stay long. 

That night, their house is attacked by another family, a family of dopplegangers. From that point we are up in running in an old-school style horror film. It's pretty clear after both "Get Out" and "Us" that Jordan Peele is absolutely fascinated by the horror genre, and its pretty clear that its had a deep affect on him. I can't wait to see what Peele does with "The Twilight Zone" when it hits CBS All Access. But one thing is for sure, I think its safe to say that Jordan Peele has turned himself into a brand name with "Us." After this he's going to pretty much be able to do whatever he wants, when he wants. I think we are all going to be richer for it too.

It's tough to get any further in this review without discussing Lupita Nyong'o. I am having trouble finding the words to describe her performance outside of words like "amazing," and "excellent." I struggle because I feel she deserves all the positive words I can possibly use. Nyong'o has been amazing before, no doubt about it. But she is unleashed in this movie in way I would never expect. Not only as Adelaide but as Adelaide's doppleganger named Red. I can say with confidence that there are several moments involving Red that I'm sure will give me nightmares tonight if I don't stop thinking about them. Everything Red does is creepy. The way she walks, the way she stares, the way she talks, each and every mannerism is terrifying. The character is a walking nightmare and Nyong'o brings her to life with such excitement that you can't look away from her, even though you really want to.

Nyong'o steals the show, but that doesn't mean the rest of the cast isn't solid. Winston Duke is playing a very different character than his popular M'Baku role over at Marvel, and its a nice change of pace watching him play a loving father. I also liked that when the shit hits the fan, he doesn't suddenly become a superhero, which happens too often in these kinds of movies. In fact, the movie is more engaging because it feels so believable. Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker show up as a couple who are friends with Adelaide's family, and both Moss and Heidekcker do good work here. They are attacked by their own dopplegangers too, and Moss is in particular is so delightfully strange as her doppleganger that if DC ever decides to adapt "Flashpoint Paradox" as a movie, it would be a disservice if Moss doesn't play the Martha Wayne version of The Joker. Both Shahadi White Joseph and Evan Alex are great young performers and I can't wait to see if they star in anything else in the future, they've certainly earned it.

It's funny watching Peele play with certain tropes of horror. Many have noticed that the lead family is black, which is horror subversion at its finest. Black actors in horror movies are usually reserved for the comic relief roles, or they are the first characters to die. Not only does the whole family survive (sorry about spoilers!), but its interesting to see the white actors getting the comic relief characters and also dying early in the movie. (Again, sorry about spoilers) There is no doubt that Peele is making a defiantly black perspective movie and it adds an enrichment to the storytelling I feel like I haven't seen before.

Where people are going to get hung-up is how to interpret this movie. You can read the events of "Us" several different ways. I feel if I brought five people to see "Us" again, no two people would get the same thing from it. Sure, on one level it dissects how we are all our own worst enemies. How we always have to have control over our darker attributes. But I feel it goes so much deeper than the surface. There are a lot of great black filmmakers in the business right now. It also seems like all that talent is treating their movies like mirrors, begging the audience to really study the reflection they see. It's almost impossible to have an honest, meaningful discussion about race, politics and class in this country right now. I'll be honest too folks, I think we've shot ourselves in the foot a little bit as a culture, trying to prohibit those things from conversation in most social situations. Because we are going mad trying to understand our world right now, and we don't have the vocabulary to explain ourselves right now. It seems to me that "Us" is begging for us to change. We need to listen to each other. We need to be more open-minded about each other's wants and needs, especially if we disagree with those wants and needs. If we don't do this, we will eventually self-destruct. I couldn't help getting wrapped up in "Us" because its a searing portrait of all the current feelings and frustrations in America right now.

And before you scoff at me being too political, check out the movie. Listen carefully to how the dopplegangers, known as The Tethered, first introduce themselves. They don't call themselves The Tethered. No, Red calls them something else, and what she calls them and how she says it were enough to sting. 

I've never been a very political person, but I feel pretty on edge with what's going on in the world today. Maybe its because I have a daughter now, and I am not just charge of myself anymore. I do kind of fear what the world will look like as she gets older. But all I can do is make sure she's a good person. I can make sure that superficial hate doesn't run her life, and that open-mindedness and kindness on her part towards everyone will make her life happy. Especially as the world around her seems to plummet more into chaos. All I can do is make sure that when she's an adult, she a good person. Its a responsibility I am more than willing to accept.

Jordan Peele has crafted a big picture here. He packs so many themes, ideas and meanings into this film that it almost feels its getting away from him. If anything, "Us" could have possibly been a mini-series, just so Peele could appropriately dive into everything he's trying to convey. But I hope its more of a positive than negative to admit that I just wish I got more. I wish we got to play in this world just a little bit longer. Yes, there is a twist at the end, but the movie isn't set around the twist. The movie isn't built like a M. Night Shyamalan movie. It just feels like icing on an already delicious piece of cake.

This movie is going to be stuck in my head now for awhile. It's already poisoned my brain all day today, I haven't been able to think of anything else. Jordan Peele has made a great blend of horror and humor. He may have turned himself into a brand name. But more than anything, when people look back on his career when I'm old and grey, "Us" will be discussed as a placeholder on what was going on in this country at the time. The classics of the horror genre are comments on the times in which they were made. For Peele to be such a horror nerd, and so effortlessly make his own statement in the genre, its almost a double-win.

FINAL GRADE: A+

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