Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Hell Across America--And In The Pit Of Your Soul, 2020

Lupita Nyong'o in Jordan Peele's "Us"
. Universal Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Early in "Us", Jordan Peele's much-awaited follow-up to his Oscar-winning "Get Out", multiple pairs of eyes and mouths appear on a television set watched by a little girl.  Everything looks so sunny including the sound of a woman's voice.  But either side of the TV are VHS tapes, including "C.H.U.D."  There's "The Goonies" and "The Right Stuff".  These mid-1980s titles are a mix of horror, politics and patriotism, rectitude and goodness, adventure and obstacle, all warring facets undergirding Mr. Peele's terrific and terrifying sophomore effort, which also advises us that many abandoned tunnels and underground subways are lurking and have no purpose at all.

It is the 1980s.  A family of four led with laid-back Cliff Huxtable fervor by Gabe (Winston Duke) is in peril when their Santa Cruz, California summer home is invaded by red-clad left overs from "Night Of The Living Dead".  Doppelgangers.  "Who are you people?", Gabe inquires.  "Americans!" one replies.  This response hits a raw nerve, and the director tweaks us out of our comfort zone to experience discomforts and feel implications beyond the images we are absorbing.  "Us" is a grand, highly thoughtful allegorical journey into a realization that the right stuff isn't so right anymore. 

"Us" unearths truths about where we stand in America.  When Gabe says it will take 14 minutes for the police to arrive at their home, you know why.  (Surprise, surprise: the police never come, and never appear in "Us".)  I immediately thought of those 14 minutes as in fact the actual exact length of the "Thriller" music video, a song about terror, horror, safety, innocence and no easy escape.)  The police would seemingly be the elixir against the rude dopplegangers but they are also the fear, for they could end the lives of Gabe, Adelaide and their kids in less than 14 seconds, or in 11.  Ironies and opposites gild "Us": the innocence and adult, parent and child, lines crossed or not crossed and the passage of time and proximity to danger.

There's a serenity about Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), confident under the most intense cirumstances, though tearful when she sees her doppelganger who growls instructions at her family.  By then we've already seen a flashback of a younger Adelaide, who can't shake the experience of seeing her identical self at Santa Cruz many years before.  Who said you can't go back in time?  After all, Adelaide's son (Evan Alex) travels back to the Seventies, and is a wise old soul.  His travel back in time is emblazoned on his t-shirt in the shape of the movies: "Jaws", with the famous shark to boot. 

Ever an examiner of the feral and fertive as he was in "Get Out", Mr. Peele utilizes and maximizes film horror culture and establishes rustic surroundings, dressing them in the idyllic comforts and take-it-for-granteds that make life truly worth living, and he so deliciously savages these comforts by making the safest and most intimate things in your life the most dangerous and horrific, to great social commentary effect and outcome.  "Us" packs its strongest punches in these intimate moments, and when silence and comfort predominate "Us" is at its most disquieting.

When "Us" explores the friends of Adelaide and Gabe (a Californicated drinking white married couple played by "Handmaid's Tale" actor Elisabeth Moss and comedian Tim Heidecker) Mr. Peele's points grow more acute, powerful and stark.  He exponentializes fear, artifice, superficiality, anxiety and male ineffectualness for a ringing indictment of parts of American culture, beauty notions and the way we live in this 21st century, so auto-pilot guided yet so very dangerously lost.  If the 1980s was the "me" generation decade in America, then "Us" represents the "who are we?" generation.  The director provides clever insights and haunts us with scripture that is not only foreboding but symbolically outposts the most primal terror of all: ourselves.  As the saying goes, "when you look deep into the abyss, the abyss also looks deep into you."  "Us" says that we haven't looked at ourselves honestly as Americans, and that it will take one heck of a jolt, such as a revolt of an underclass, to get us to reckon with ourselves.  There are prices to be paid, but even when one character meets an end a healthy dose of compassion and peace arrives.  Maybe all isn't lost with humanity.    

Adelaide does things only a loving mother would do and as in "Get Out", the mother-son dynamic in "Us" is a richly interesting aspect that had me thinking well after the film ended.  Mr. Peele attenuates the deepest fears about ourselves in the most disturbing ways.  Things so innate become so horrible.  Our human bond, which has been frayed, ruptured, destroyed and decayed forever in the United States (US), is also overrun by the tyranny of our very hearts.  "Us" captures these terrors of the soul as cathartically and beautifully as it does strokes of horror, contained yet combustible, even downright explosive.   Mr. Peele plunges us like a downward roller coaster into the souls of these characters and leaves some scenarios remarkably open-ended, adding to the frightening effects. 

Mike Gioulakis's cinematography of Ms. Nyong'o in particular is arresting, and she has never looked more beautiful on the big screen in a performance for the ages, her best and most Oscar-nomination worthy.  Mr. Peele has consciously and refreshingly used darker-skinned Black actors in both his films now, to make statements I think, to not only see a Black person on screen, but to show and then crush weaponized racist stereotypes in over a century of Hollywood film.  And these are fine bold choices, playing on the racial stereotypes about darker Black people already brought to the theatre beforehand by Black and white audiences.  Mr. Peele continues to give Black men a vulnerability and awareness in his films, a broader actualization and context, and any physicality is compromised.  Gabe wears a big limp in the family, not the big pants in the family.

"Us" makes no bones about its ability to unsettle and penetrate our minds, and Mr. Peele employs equal parts nightmare and fantasy, and his densely-layered warning film excels when polar opposites clash so seamlessly up against each other as to be violent or violative.  On various levels in "Us" we experience how violence is taught at an early age, and how parents and children react and talk about or around violence or other unsavory adult matters.  When Gabe is asked about a song being about drugs, he lies and jokes "it's a dope song."  Is this protection mode or disregard of a parental duty to warn?  "Don't do drugs," Gabe says blithely, in a way perhaps not dissimilar from Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drugs campaign.

Great artists and filmmakers (and Mr. Peele is undoubtedly one of them) often benefit from excellent timing.  It is near impossible to have known that a t-shirt with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" imprinted on it in a 2018 film version of 1986 would have the profoundly unseemly and gravely problematic implications and resonance it has in 2019.  In "Us" it is the artifacts, those things seen and unseen around the edges, those everyday things, that have the greatest, most unforgettable impact and consequence.  Is this all a real nightmare, or a nightmare reality?  Those two scenarios, like the doppelgangers in "Us", are not necessarily the same.

With: Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon.

"Us" is rated R by the Motion Picture Assocation of America for violence/terror and language.  The film running time is one hour and 56 minutes.

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