Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so on point about its sociopolitical subtext that many critics gave it a pass on its plotting, which, especially toward the end, became stiff and formulaic. It’s clear that Peele has a talent for horror forms, but it’s also clear that these skills have mainly been acquired through osmosis, which makes sense for someone who was making his first horror movie. But what everyone, including myself, took away from the groundbreaking feature was the way Peele incorporated the everyday discomfort that black people feel in a world ruled by white people into a conventional horror story by inflating that discomfort into pure terror. Given how skillfully and convincingly he accomplished this feat, the screenplay’s pitfalls seemed less blatant. In fact, it won Peele an Oscar.
These pitfalls are more noticeable in his followup, Us, which is actually scarier than Get Out while making less sense. Encouraged by the success of his previous film, Peele has become even bolder with his subtext, expanding the sociopolitical criticism to embrace the experience of being an American in general, and not just a black one (though, in the context presented, being black comes across as scarier by definition).
The genre is that of the “family beseiged by unknown supernatural forces,” and the movie opens with a flashback of a little girl wandering through a California amusement park during a storm and taking refuge in a hall of mirrors where she encounters a terrifying double. The girl, whose name is Adelaide, grows up, gets a job, marries, and has two kids, and the beginning of the movie proper has her (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family visiting the same coastal area during a vacation, during which the feelings of dread she felt so long ago in the amusement park are reawakened and given flesh. The family, ensconced for the night in a weekend house Adelaide’s husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), is borrowing from his employer, is that night terrorized by a family dressed in identical red outfits and which looks exactly like them but moves in zombie-like fashion with blank, wide-eyed expressions. During this sequence, Peele ramps up the jump scares and expertly keeps the viewer’s attention distracted by details—bloody raw meat, the glint of a kitchen knife, a noose hanging from an elevated ceiling, Adelaide’s son’s “Jaws” T-shirt—that take on a cumulative meaning aside from their individual signification of death and violence.
The class distinctions that eventually come to define the difference between Adelaide’s family and these doppelgangers are potent until Peele feels obligated to explain them, and the movie collapses under the weight of an intricate origin tale that makes only thematic sense. The problem with horror movies—and it was the problem with Get Out, too—is that the justification for all the carnage has to be clear and simple enough so as not to be a distraction itself, and Us‘s clever but ultimately unwieldy social critique plot is just too silly to take seriously in the context of a horror story. Though it may sound like a waste of talent, it would be interesting to see Peele tackle a straightforward horror movie without the weighted subtext.
Opens Sept. 6 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Us home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Universal Pictures