Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 29, 2019

Critic's Corner: It’s entirely possible for Peele to make a better film than ‘Us’

There’s a moment in “Us,” a new horror film from writer and director Jordan Peele, when the movie elicits an obvious question: How is that possible? The movie succeeds, or fails, based on your need for a satisfactory answer.

In the scene, a family of four peers through the windows of their Santa Cruz vacation rental at night and sees something that should not exist: a duplicate family dressed in red jump suits standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the end of the driveway. “It’s us,” the son inside the house says ominously.

Remarkably, he’s right. Before long, the doppelgangers have invaded the house and are threatening the family with bodily harm, despite the best efforts of the husband to ward them off with a baseball bat. As they sat there, gazing at each other from opposite sides of the living room, I wondered, “How is that possible?”

If you like everything in a movie to be tied up with a neat bow, “Us” might frustrate or disappoint you. While Peele does provide an answer of sorts, he creates more questions in the process. He also introduces a slithering mess of plot holes.

On the other hand, if you can accept a film that drops all pretense of logic in order to deliver a message through metaphors and allusions, then “Us” might entertain you and provoke you to thought.

Like “Get Out,” Peele’s first movie as writer and director, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of “Us.”

In “Get Out,” Peele used horror movie tropes to reveal the destructive nature of racism. In “Us,” he uses the familiar structure of the home invasion movie to explore the impact of social stratification on identity. That might sound like more than you sign up for when you buy a movie ticket and a bucket of popcorn, but it’s a bold and fascinating use of popular film.

Plus, Peele hooks viewers from the beginning, first by staging a gripping opening scene set in the past, then by allowing the audience to spend some quality time with the Wilsons (father, mother, daughter and son) and then by subjecting the family to the terrifying home invasion.

From there, Peele keeps his foot on the accelerator, alternating between truly disturbing horror imagery and audio effects (the sound of shears closing will forever remind me of this film) and outrageous humor (the song that plays when a victim tells her home’s artificial intelligence to “call the police” triggered howls of laughter from the crowd at the screening I attended).

As Peele has fun with these horror film clichés, he’s invites the audience to look deeper. The way some of the doppelgangers mirror the movements of the Wilsons provides a puzzle for viewers to solve, and Peele uses visual motifs to suggest there’s more to the story than meets the eye, such as the frequent appearance of 11:11. (Look up Jeremiah 11:11 before seeing the film if your curious about this.)

I also loved the irony of the shot of the sticker of a happy nuclear family on the window of the Wilson’s van.

However, as the story unfolds, and it becomes clear that Peele is focusing not just on how inequality impacts the individual but the entire nation (the U.S., or “Us”), the movie does a swan dive into surreal waters.

Frankly, this pulled me out of the film. While I understood what Peele was doing and why, he asks the audience to sacrifice their suspension of disbelief for the sake of the film’s message.

But the slithering hoard of plot holes distracted me. I should have been wowed, but instead, I was asking, “What about this?” and “What about that?”

In the end, I was still impressed with Peele’s bravado in making “Us,” I just wished he had reeled in his art house movie instincts a bit.

I also loved the performance of Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, who plays the mother, Adelaide, and her doppelganger, Red. She delivered two distinct and memorable performances of the same character (but not really the same character) and knocks each scene she’s in out of the ballpark.

Although “Us” is not as artistically successful as “Get Out,” it shows that Peele is no one-shot wonder but that he can both entertain audiences and make them think about big ideas. I just hope the next time he makes me ask, “How is that possible?” he provides a more satisfying answer.