If you haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s second movie US and you’re just wondering if I recommend it, the answer is yes. Personally, I loved it. I don’t expect everyone to feel the same, or as strongly. Not everybody’s gonna be looking for the same things. The record breaking opening weekend proves Peele is still playing to more than just the people who go to lots of horror movies, and it’s hard to know what anyone will demand from the followup to a small horror movie so broadly popular it broke all rules by being nominated for best picture.
I think this is one with all kinds of fascinating things going on beneath the surface, as we now expect from Peele and his “social horror,” but that’s not the primary thing I’m looking for. It also really speaks to me just with its directorial style and the bugged out horror ride it takes us on.
I don’t want to write anything tip-toeing around those things they held back in the marketing. I’m thankful the trailer didn’t give away the whole game. So I’ve written a VERY SPOILERFUL review for after you’ve seen it only. I hope if you haven’t seen it you’ll come back after you have.
I AM SERIOUS, THIS WILL BE NOTHING BUT SPOILERS STACKED ON TOP OF SPOILERS
Recently a couple different people asked me my opinion on some supposed controversy about whether or not Jordan Peele might be “the next John Carpenter.” My answer was wait a minute, what is the comparison? If you gotta diminish Peele’s individuality by putting him into the pre-existing slot of one master of horror, shouldn’t it be the much more social-message-oriented George Romero? Or at least the scholarly Wes Craven? I guess maybe the point of the question is, could he be like any of those guys, a director who continues as sort of a name brand for horror, putting his voice into a bunch of different movies throughout his career?
Well, so far so good. I hope JC is working on his sketch comedy show so he can become the next Jordan Peele.
On first viewing I think I love US even more than GET OUT. I don’t know if its broader, arguably-less-specifically-of-the-moment underpinnings will make it less of a zeitgeist buster, but I think it’s more advanced filmmaking and its genre trappings are more up my particular horror alley. Not that Peele was lacking in confidence the first time around, but here he gives me that “just sit back buddy, you’re in the hands of a master” feel from frame 1. It’s kind of a dream-like premise loaded with possible meanings, but placed in a grounded, relatable world with such lovable characters. And it delivers such a worthy vacation-from-hell movie before spreading like a mold into a worldwide-catastrophre. And (here’s a Romero move for you) in the end the status quo is not restored. It’s weird and creepy and stylish as fuck, from its heightened 1986 flashback to its slow camera moves to its ominous lakeside night time murder spree to its strong use of not-deep-but-great cuts on the soundtrack.
And, wow – outstanding performances by a phenomenal cast of people playing dual roles (even many of the extras!). They have to give natural could-be-your-family performances and also grunting monsters-with-a-weird-physicality performances. I got no idea if it’s always that kid that plays Jason (Evan Alex, one episode of Sesame Street) crawling around like a spider under the Pluto mask, but jesus. And Winston Duke (BLACK PANTHER) does so much with his big-hulking-guy-who’s-really-a-teddy-bear-and-sounds-like-a-nerdy-Jordan-Peele-character-but-deepens-his-voice-when-there’s-trouble.
Best of all, Lupita G.D. Nyong’o going for the knockout playing
1) Cool mom and wife starting to come unglued due to past trauma
2) Fucking nightmare feral lady with bizarre raspy voice punctuated by loud swallowing
3) Pushed-to-the-limit firepoker avenger
4) All the various complicated layers glimpsed beneath each of the above
As I said after the movie: Lupita for best actress, president, Batman, whatever she wants. And man I hope she really ends up doing that remake of THE KILLER with John Woo.
The main grounding factor is this family, who have such distinct personalities and rapport with each other. There are many big laughs in the movie and they’re not at the expense of the horror because they’re mostly just the characters being funny. (Exception: that “Fuck Tha Police” joke.) A great character moment is when Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph, HAIRSPRAY LIVE!) and Jason, who have been bickering throughout the movie, wordlessly agree to go upstairs and try to kill the twins. And Jason pulls down his Halloween mask and Zora gives him this look acknowledging the previously established fact that she thinks he’s a weirdo, but I think maybe she then decides she gets it.
I love the tight-but-detailed style of Peele’s writing. I’m not talking about the fact that he gave all of the Tethered names that we mostly only know from the credits, or the nerdy little details like all the number elevens and the references (a few of which I will discuss below in a section called THE NERDY LITTLE DETAILS, as soon as I’m done with some heavy, unexpectedly personal shit), but the way he casually establishes things that come up again later: the magic trick, the locking closet door, that Zora can run fast, the engine problem on the boat, the veering to the left, that they will hear him if he honks the horn of the boat, Josh having a boat and a flaregun, Josh having a backup generator, Josh having a car that Gabe is jealous of, Adelaide having been a dancer – I’m sure I’m forgetting some. I always dig that sort of narrative clockwork in a movie.
And I love the structure of it. Opening with the classic past incident scene – it establishes the Traumatic Memory that will be important and the Scary Place that must be avoided. Or must be faced.
Then we meet the family and it’s sunny and they’re on vacation, and I feel like I could keep on watching this fun movie even if the scary stuff didn’t start crawling in from the edges, causing trouble.
And then it’s night and they see their duplicate family in the driveway. In many movies, maybe most, this would be the first big confrontation, but they’d get away and we’d go back to normalcy for a bit before trouble starts again. Instead, it turns into a home invasion movie and a chase. Stretches of sustained action until there’s a dead white family times two and they think maybe they can get out of this now.
But then it opens up to a wider scale and things get crazier before Adelaide heads into the Scary Place just like Nancy goes into the nightmare or Stretch goes into Texas Battle Land or Laurie goes back into H20 Private High School to ax fight her evil brother. It’s tradition except there’s dancing and bunnies and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this before.
The one thing that I wished could’ve been not spoiled by the trailer was the orchestral version of “I Got 5 On It,” because that would’ve been a goosebump moment when it kicked in. But I get it. It made for such a great trailer, and almost a parody of a style of trailer. They had to do it.
But I’m so happy the advertising only told us about the one family. When the story moved over to the Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) house I was afraid of Red and her family coming to visit. It’s not quite misdirection. He’s got me looking in the right direction, but for the wrong thing.
They were so restrained with what they gave away in marketing that the opening title card about tunnels was almost an UNBREAKABLE level did-not-expect-this. But instead of being a headscratcher it just made us anticipate some kind of secret, literally underground shit going on under everybody’s feet. Thoughts of CHUDs, RAW MEATs, sewer crocodiles, weird underground fuckers.
In contrast to GET OUT, I don’t think US is specifically about race. But Peele still put me into a panic with those few minutes where the nice black family sat in the home of the white family they just beat to death, trying to call the police, acting like this would be easy to explain. And right after we listened to a really good song about how “police think they have the authority to kill a minority.” It was almost a relief to learn that this wasn’t an isolated incident, that there were gangs of doppels causing havoc all over the place. Phew.
So what is US about? I’m sure there are many better interpretations than mine. I just want to talk about what it made me think about from my life. It made me think that I know the guilt of Adelaide and her family, the feeling of having something that others don’t, that maybe I don’t deserve. Of not knowing any way to make it more equal. I mean, we all know it – living in countries that we know have more resources, or more freedom, or more peace than other parts of the world. We know it as people who have somewhere to live, and maybe have jobs, and walk past other people living in tents, or less, or holding signs asking for money that we don’t usually give them, and when we do we wonder how it could be enough, or if it even helps. And we have no choice but to learn to be callous to it, because it’s a suffering that’s everywhere. Even if we could stop and really think deeply about it and cry every time, what good would that do anyone? So we try to give them the right look of support or we’re weak and look away and go on to live our life and don’t think about theirs until the next time we see them.
There’s all that, but I feel the guilt on a more personal level too. My mom grew up middle class, my dad grew up having to shit in an outhouse. There was always a little tension between their families, and other problems I shouldn’t get into that pushed us away from my dad’s side. My dad’s mom died when I was maybe 19, and I remember sitting on some steps after the funeral, talking to a cousin my age. And he laid into me about not really knowing her. I knew it wasn’t in my control, it was between my dad and them, but that didn’t save me. I had the guilt.
Decades later at the funeral of my mom’s dad, after they did a flag ceremony and talked about his days in the army, which he’d never talked to me about, I started to trace things back to fuckin World War II. Both of my grandpas were in the army. My dad’s dad, who I don’t remember, was in combat. My mom’s dad, who I was able to know and love well into this decade, was not. Before enlisting he’d been studying to become a court reporter, and since he knew how to type he was plucked out and made a secretary to some general or something. I’m sure his contribution was important, but he didn’t have to kill anyone. He met my sainted Grandma when she was a candy striper, they had kids and grandkids and retired to square dance and travel in a motor home and he made it to all 50 states and still had decades to relax and get to know the great grand kids. My dad’s dad, from what Dad told me, was mean and angry and embarrassed his kids by writing crazy letters to the local newspaper and made my dad so mad he punched a hole in the wall of his room that was still there when I was a kid.
And I wonder if it was that one accident, the fact that one of them knew how to type at the right time and place, that made the difference. If what one of them went through in battle and the other was spared from largely determined the direction of their lives. Either way, I believe my dad’s urge to get the hell away from that wall with the hole in it put me at an advantage over my cousin, who grew up on the same tract of land as our dads. I think it’s been almost 25 years since I’ve seen him. Less since I’ve seen his mugshot. I’ve cringed at what I’ve read about him in publicly available documents. I’ve been thankful that my life was different.
Shortly before I published my novel Niketown I panicked and did a search-and-replace to change the main character’s name. I’d been writing it for years without thinking how very close it was to my cousin’s full name. There’s no reason to think he would ever know about my writing or want to read it, but I had this fear of him finding it and wondering if it was supposed to be about him, and then realizing that it was worse – the minor parallels were a coincidence, and he’s so far out of my life that I didn’t even think about it. That’s the kind of guilt I carry around about winning the childhood coin toss over him.
I don’t know who or what the Tethered represent to Peele, but that’s some of the things they made me think of. Not anybody that’s gonna come try to kill me, or that I’m gonna beat with a golf club. Which I don’t have. I don’t own one house, let alone two, or a boat or a car, and I don’t have kids. But so far I don’t worry about food or rent, and I’m able to do this thing I love, and I believe I’ve worked hard and sacrificed for the little I have, and I deserve it. But also nobody deserves to be left behind, or to have their fate tethered to the better off, if that’s how it works.
The “monsters” of this movie didn’t do anything, they just had the shitty luck to be the ones who have to live in the tunnels. And maybe their interpretation of Hands Across America is less wholesome than ours. But just watch Kitty Tyler’s double Dahlia put on that lipstick, and consider the joy it gives her. All the things tiny and enormous that Kitty gets and Dahlia doesn’t because that’s just the way it is.
That’s the dilemma. I’m never gonna be some “Gotta Look Out For #1” asshole. But why fool myself that that makes any difference? I don’t know how to give anybody much more than my sympathy, my occasional pocket change, my monthly Red Cross donation. And that’s not worth a raw rabbit on Christmas.
Oh hey, whattaya know, let’s lighten the mood talking about THE NERDY LITTLE DETAILS, right guys?
Okay, I know we all paid attention to those video tapes in the opening shot. Obviously THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS relates to duplicates, C.H.U.D. to humanoid underground dwellers, and THE GOONIES to kids in underground tunnels. I don’t know how THE RIGHT STUFF and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET relate, but I wonder if her dad let her watch Freddy like he did Thriller. (I know there was a hand labelled “Thursday Nites” and I didn’t identify the other one.)
I was really wondering “Jesus, how popular does Peele think Black Flag was” with all the t-shirts on the boardwalk, until I heard the baseball game was tied 11 to 11 and I realized their logo has the four rectangles, like two elevens, like two pairs. Peele loves that type of shit. I love that he loves it as a creepy atmospheric bonus and not the premise, like THE NUMBER 23 or something. I’m sure he does it partly to make people pore over his movies with a magnifying glass, knowing he’d be doing it too. But it also creates this unsettling feeling of unseen, inexplicable, unstoppable forces at work. Like, whatever scientific explanation there is for a bunch of underground clones, understanding it still wouldn’t be enough.
We all noticed the 1111 on the ambulance in the last shot, right? Like fate taunting us. Or bragging.
I gotta get nerdy about the art direction by Cara Brower (HAIL, CAESAR!, Twin Peaks: The Return). I’m a sucker for fictional carnival dark rides. I also like details such as the toilet-paper-wielding crab logo on the Port-a-Potties and the aquatic-themed packaging of the fast food they ate at the beginning. If I’m wrong and those are real I’m a dumbass, but I think they made them up, and much like the weird industrial film in GET OUT (or Big Kahuna Burger and Red Apple Cigarettes in Tarantino’s movies) they help to… you know. Build a world, let’s call it.
LET’S TALK THE ENDING
I love the puzzling nature of the final revelation. It brings up way more questions than answers. Adelaide is the duplicate who came from the tunnels, so according to Red, she must not have a soul? Does that mean we should be scared of her now, like she’s up to something? I prefer to think she made it out, so not having a soul (if that is real) does not seal your doom.
If the clones are tethered to the people they’re duplicates of, shouldn’t Adelaide be the one who’s tethered, with Red controlling her from below? I guess the one who has the higher ground is in control. “And to think, if it weren’t for you I never would’ve danced at all.” If you hadn’t switched with me, the therapist wouldn’t have said to put you in dance lessons, causing me to dance?
I can’t say it was a shock, though – I was wondering from the beginning whether the two had been switched. I was assuming that, actually, or at least that we were supposed to wonder whether they had, after seeing that she wouldn’t talk after she came out of the hall of mirrors. I backed off the idea after the scene where she tells her husband about the childhood incident, thinking she wouldn’t have said that her parents brought her to the boardwalk. Until later when it occurred to me that maybe her underground parents did take her to the boardwalk. Then there was the scene where her son saw her growling animalistically. And when she approached Pluto in front of the burning car like she thought she could communicate with him. And the way she went to the secret passage and down the escalator like she knew it was there.
But the confrontation between her and Red seemed to contradict my theory and I though oh, that’s weird, I guess I was reading too much into it, until I learned otherwise.
My point is this is technically a twist ending, but it still works without surprise or shock. It was still suspenseful and interesting to decode when I guessed it right away.
Even still, I’m sure it will be a whole different experience to see the second time, knowing for sure from the beginning, considering Adelaide’s and Red’s perspectives the whole time. So these are my initial findings.
For now I can suss that US is a MUS’ and worth all the fuss. A+!
March 25th, 2019 at 1:38 pm
This was a good movie that I had a few problems with but ultimately came away respecting and even loving.
* * * SPOILER WARNING EVEN THOUGH IT SEEMS UNNECESSARY AT THIS POINT* * *
I really really really appreciated what the twist with Red & Adelaide did for the narrative. We, the audience, start off the movie identifying with this little girl because she is our POV on what’s happening — she is figuratively “Us” — so we are rooting for her to survive. Then at the end when we realize who she really is, it means that we retroactively have to reconsider everything that happened in the narrative. If she’s the little girl we were rooting for, then how do we feel about her failing to reclaim the life that was originally hers? How do we feel about the doppelganger Adelaide strangling her with the handcuffs (the symbol of their tethering)? How do we feel about the fact that the ‘good’ family was doing shit like buying a dumb boat they don’t need while she was down there eating fucking raw rabbit for Christmas? Or the ‘good family’ comparing kill counts like the Tethered are monsters instead of people — Americans! — who have as much of a right to live as they do?
That narrative trick, coupled with a metaphor elastic enough to reward almost any interpretation of the Tethered, from homeless people to family members from a different social strata, is worth its weight in gold as far as I’m concerned. Those kind of ideas are what makes Peele an artist, so even if he got nothing else right in the movie I would still be for it. And there are tons of other things he gets right — the opening with the boardwalk and the creepy maze are beautifully shot & executed, the performances are great across the board, the dialogue is always clever, etc. etc. But I have to be honest that there are some things in the execution where I thought he stumbled, too. None of them were dealbreakers but they kept it from being perfect.
My biggest issue was easily the editing. It’s just a little slow in places, like when Lupita goes down into the underground and there are at least thirty seconds worth of redundant shots of her going around corners & down stairways that don’t add information or create more tension, they just kind of fill up time. Same with a lot of the intercutting between the family dealing with their individual doppelgangers when they first separate: there’s a lot of buildup in each scenario, then cutting away somewhere else, before cutting back and then re-building tension. Not a terrible idea in concept but in execution it felt like padding: I was [metaphorically] looking at my watch waiting for stuff to happen, which is especially notable because I saw it opening night with a full theater and should have been riding that energy. Like I said, a little slow in places, not a dealbreaker but it could have easily been tighter and, to my mind, more effective.
Another issue I had was that it’s pretty quickly revealed that the family is not actually in danger, narrative-wise. Like in the fiction of the movie, ostensibly the Tethered are trying to kill them. But the narrative of the movie gives it away that they’re not going to get killed as soon as you see the little girl escape her doppelganger because the doppelganger kills mustache guy instead. And she kills him immediately, instead of toying with him like she toyed with the girl for ten minutes! Sure, the movie justifies this by giving Red a line to the effect that they want to savor the experience because they’ve anticipated it for so long. But as a viewer you can’t help noticing that the movie is essentially going out of its way to keep the family alive, creating opportunities for them to fight back & escape. And once you understand that, you are just waiting for each family member to have *their* moment of overcoming their doppelganger one-on-one. It puts you in the position of waiting for the movie to catch up to what you’ve anticipated, which adds to the feeling of padding created by the edit.
Other than those gripes, though, I dug this. Lupita as Red, especially, was Heath-as-the-Joker-level good for me. She took a big swing with that voice and holy cow did it pay off. And the last shot was a fantastic visual capstone to the story, succeeding as a fitting image for any read of the metaphor you care to make. To me it seemed like a giant red faultline running through California, a perfect symbol of a coming earthquake. Excellent.