The bible figures early on in Jordan Peele’s latest magnificently malicious nightmare. A homeless man in tattered rags holds up a sign, not for change in currency, but one that spells cultural and prophetic change. It reads “Jeremiah 11:11.” A verse that describes a people who have gone back to their past sinful ways, and in return, God unleashes his wrath. We’re thankful for the clarification, since some of us might have been wondering where God figured into this apocalyptic mess. But this isn’t the work of God, it’s the work of us. Or the U.S.? Whatever the case may be, Jordan Peele has done it again with a bad-shit-crazy sophomore feature that is every bit as entertaining as it is horrifying.
For many of you, this will come with a huge sigh of relief. How could anyone follow up the groundbreaking masterpiece that was “Get Out?” Remember the “sunken place”–how couldn’t you?– a haunting metaphor for American slavery, where the weight of the past became the crushing burden of the present. There’s a different sort of sunken place here, and no, it doesn’t involve tea time with Catherine Keener. And it doesn’t exactly center race either. This time the focus is shifted to an America at war with its own shadow of historical solecism, particularly in the repercussions from the Reagan-era.
The repercussions hardly seem to apply to the Wilson family. They are a black family with money to spare, and so they do. On a trip to Santa Cruz, where the sun shines bright, where the sea salt kisses the warm air, and where the end of the world would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. (Credit cinematographer Mike Gioulakis for the dreamlike atmosphere). Still, something seems off. Mom, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o, killing it), has been here before.
A spine-tingling prologue shows Adelaide as a girl–the year is 1986– at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. She wanders off, as kids often do, into a hall of mirrors titled FIND YOURSELF. She does (literally), having come face to face with a girl who looks exactly like her. Fast forward to present day, and she is now grappling with confronting her troubled past face to face. A troubled family life growing up is hard enough to deal with, but tack on the foreboding feeling of your doppleganger’s return, and that psychological distress becomes the stuff of nightmares.
“Us” is grounded in the stuff of nightmares. Lurking under the feeling of suburban immunity is a surrealist takeover along the lines of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or “The Invitation” ( I won’t spoil the ending, but those who have seen “The Invitation” will already have this one figured out). As is usually the case with these things, the family is blind to the evil around them. Whereas Peele’s brilliant use of mise-en-scene scatters clues throughout the background of the frame to give the audience a perspective the characters are living without. That’s the thing about his eloquently crafted films– every frame is overflowing with purpose, but Peele leaves it up to us to decide what that purpose is.
Take the commercial we see in the opening moments. For that bizarre 1986 Hands Across America Campaign, in which six million citizens lined up to hold hands at the height of Reagan-era optimism. And how this red-clad race of doubles follows a similar tradition. Is Peele arguing that our tumultuous class system stemmed from that era? As well as our loss of identity? It’s hard to say. What’s easy to say is that this film will scare the hell out of you.
Your toes will curl and your muscles tighten as the family of doubles, toting gold scissors and shinier smiles, attempts to wipe out the Wilson family. The king of dad-jokes (Winston Duke) now has tree trunks for arms, and, probably to his kid’s benefit, the inability to speak. Daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) now crawl about like spiders, as mom tirelessly calls out orders the way someone would at a fast food restaurant. She’s in charge of the operation just as Peele is in full control of his film.
“Us” is both ferociously frantic and scrupulously contained. It wants the fun-house madness of “Childsplay”, the sociopolitical mystery of “The Twilight Zone”, the dark–DARK!– humor of Romero, and the beating atmosphere of Hitchcock. And for once, Peele proves that you can have it all. That you can be both an art-film and a box-office success. We usually don’t see this sort of floating camerawork, expert framing, and powerhouse performances in Hollywood productions. But we do here. That’s all to say that I will now follow Peele down whatever rabbit hole he constructs in the future. And I don’t care how many rabbits he has waiting for me at the bottom.