Us

Year of release: 2019              Directed by Jordan Peele.       Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Elisabeth Moss.

 

Vague spoiler warning

There is a piece by John Cage titled Credo in US. Whether Cage meant the last word of that title to be an emphatic declaration of me and you or an abbreviation of United States is deliberately ambiguous. Given the time he composed the piece and his own politics, it is quite possible that he intended a double meaning for the title.

I think Jordan Peele is attempting a similar wordplay and political commentary with his second feature, Us. I say think, because there are so many ideas in the film that it is difficult to know exactly what it is about, and there are enough twists to the story that more than one interpretation is possible.

One of the twists is particularly aggravating, because first of all, it’s obvious and something that any relatively knowledgeable viewer will be considering throughout the movie. It occurred to me as a possibility in the second scene. Secondly, that twist completely contradicts earlier scenes, making certain actions completely unbelievable. Finally, it undermines the entire story by suggesting several possible interpretations, which are ultimately meaningless, because it fails to change anything regarding who is inflicting the horror on whom.

One of the more credible interpretations of Us is that it is an indictment of capitalism’s dependency on classism and enslaving the working class. If that is the movie’s thesis, then the final twist makes sense since it seemingly implies the identity of two characters makes no difference, because they’ve been inevitably pitted against one another by capitalism’s economic injustice. However, if that is a correct interpretation, then it seriously undercuts the horror, because it retroactively makes it impossible to care about either character.

The characters themselves, excepting a few scenes of clichéd horror film stupidity, are wonderfully written and even better acted. Lupita Nyong’o is absolutely phenomenal as a nervous wife and mother, haunted by a nightmare she experienced at a fair as a little girl. In her second role as a sinister doppelgänger, she conveys the desperation from a lifetime of suffering and enslavement superbly. Winston Duke provides both comic relief and support as her husband, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex make an endearing pair of siblings.

The snobby white neighbors are far less interesting as characters, but as the mother of that family Elisabeth Moss creates a memorable and compelling version of a shallow, first-world white woman with first-world white-woman problems. She is an excellent foil to Nyong’o, especially when it seems that the film is going to be about the differences between white and black Americans and the ways that each is socially allowed to respond to threats and discomfort. After the plot goes around several sharp turns, her presence in the film makes less sense, but she still has some great scenes of unadulterated body horror.

One of those scenes involves a pair of scissors that will unquestionably be one of the most memorable film scenes of 2019, even if that scene has no explanation and seemingly serves the plot in no discernable way. I certainly have no objection to great scenes that have no dramatic purpose (flamethrower guitar in Mad Max: Fury Road, anyone?), but Us is laboring so hard to have a point or several in nearly every scene that the imagery comes across as baffling, because almost everything about the film is inviting comparison as some sort of allegory.

The opening title card references the underground network of railways that runs through much of America. The 1986 Hands Across America frames the film in a way that invites a cross-examination of the way our country has long functioned. References to the judgment in Jeremiah 11:11 appear throughout the movie. It is clear that the film wants to question and critique the network that much of the U.S. has been built on, but it’s not really clear what that critique is and whether its focus is racism, classism, materialism, or all of the above.

Us is a movie in which if you excerpted any individual scene, you would see excellent acting, skilled directing, good pacing, and a great atmosphere of tension skillfully infused with bits of comedy. And yet, the whole is distinctively less than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless, the parts are good enough that the film remains a fun and diverting ride as long as you don’t expect too much cohesion at the end.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content advisory: Some gruesome violence and its aftermath, moments of horror and suspense, and occasional rough language.                MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

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