By Tim Jackson
Us is a comic-horror allegory about the revolution of the underclass.
Us, directed by Jordan Peele. Screening at AMC Assembly Row 12, Somerville Theatre, AMC Boston Common 19.
In director Jordan Peele’s new thriller Us, two families vacationing on a lake are terrorized by people who appear to be their duplicates. Home invasion is a familiar action premise, but Peele expands hostile incursion into a larger social metaphor. In this way, he delivers on two things audiences love in a horror film: being scared out of their seats, and trying to figure out what it all means. Get Out works on two levels. On the one hand, ‘Get Out’ was a warning to Chris Washington that, if he didn’t want to be lobotomized, he had better escape his girlfriend’s house. It was also good advice on how to survive in a racist society. Us is also double-faced: the title is both a description of the creatures who double as humans and ‘us’ as in ‘all of us.’ Our veneer of middle class respectability glosses over the volatile reality of a disenfranchised population, desperate and seething. Us is a comic-horror allegory about the revolution of the underclass.
The Wilsons, a typical middle class American family, are at the center of the narrative. Next door, the Tylers are vacationing with their two spoiled daughters. The Wilsons are black, the Tylers are white, which has nothing to do with the plot except to suggest that privilege can be color blind. As the clans settle in, a television advertisement for “Hands Across America” is viewed. Younger viewers may be unaware that, in May of 1983, there was a massive demonstration with the goal of drawing attention to hunger and homelessness. It featured people linking hands across the country to the ‘We Are the World’ theme. Peele looks at this symbolic gesture — a single human chain of hands across the entire continent — with a jaded eye.
Besides its sardonic nod to (over)organized empathy, Us is full of allusions to other films. An opening text tells us that there are underground tunnels all over the country — many are abandoned and some have “no known purpose.” In an early scene we see a VHS copy of the film C.H.U.D, a 1984 B-movie classic. The acronym means Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. The son Jason (Evan Alex) wears a gruesome mask on his head that he occasionally pulls over his face — it is an obvious reference to Friday the 13th films. The boy’s father wins himself a “Thriller” T-shirt (zombies) and goes off to play ‘Whack-a-Mole,’ hammering down the little critters in vain. A sequence in which the camera soars above the family car as they travel to the lakeside vacation home recalls the opening shot in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining a film that is, among other things, about the breakdown of the family and the sins of America’s past. That story features a number of haunting images of doubles. In Us, visual doubling is everywhere, including at a hall of mirrors which carries the motto ‘Vision Quest: Find Yourself.” Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) once wandered into this palace of illusions as a child and confronted her double. All will be revealed. Slowly.
Meanwhile, we’re subjected tosome horrific suspense sequences and brutal assaults, the latter making use of all kinds of domestic items, from an oversized pair of scissors and a baseball bat to a fire poker and a boat. It is howling good fun to watch Lupita Nyong’o as the besieged mom battling a mechanical zombie killer version of herself. Winston Duke plays the hapless husband, Gabe. Shahadi Wright Joseph as the daughter, Zora, is particularly creepy, effective as both a frightened child and a grinning, bloodthirsty creature. The vacationing neighbors, played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, provide equally unnerving demonic duplicates.
Unlike Get Out, the thrills in Us start early. We don’t have to wait very long for a silent family of four doppelgängers, attired in red jumpsuits and lurking in the shadows of the driveway, to begin to wreak havoc. That quick payoff will appeal to horror fans. Thankfully, Peele leavens the savagery with comic touches, which makes the scariness all the more unnerving. Clues are slowly dropped regarding the identity of these strange beings. The ending doesn’t entirely clear up all the mysteries; Peele knows that part of the experience is being driven a bit crazy trying to figure it all out. My advice: listen carefully to the soundtrack. You may even come up with an explanation for the ongoing presence of bunny rabbits.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.