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December 14, 2019 | Rome, Italy

Peeling back Peele

By | 2019-04-14T13:59:55+02:00 April 12th, 2019|"Critics Notebook"|
Lupita Nyong’o, Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph express the constant terror in "Us," a non-stop horror film from Oscar winner Jordan Peele.
F

or director and writer Jordan Peele, there’s always another layer to be revealed — a subterranean one. In “Get Out!” that layer was the basement of a country estate, where evil “doctors” removed the brains of talented blacks and distributed them to whites who (to give one example) wanted to play a better game of golf. In “Us,” the subterranean is deeper and broader in its reach, encompassing a series of tunnels that underpin the United States and harbor a vast, soul-deprived underclass, condemned to a diet of raw rabbit.

Unlike “Get Out!,” where the “real” horror is a bit of shock therapy reserved for dessert, with “Us” it’s the main course — indeed, the entire menu. Peele gets to it early, when a young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wanders away from her parents at an amusement park in Santa Cruz, California. It’s 1986 and she’s wearing a T-shirt decorated with paper-doll-like characters that celebrates that year’s “Hands Across America” event, a do-gooder promotion that failed to raise adequate money to combat starvation, and a clever symbol Peele returns to at the end of the film.

Adelaide’s wandering leads her to enter the amusement park’s mirrored and forested funhouse, all dark and intimidating. It’s called “Find Yourself,” and find herself she does, coming face to face with her underclass doppelganger Red (each of the “twin” characters is played by the same actor), a menacing look-alike up from the tunnel depths. Once reunited with her parents, Adelaide appears to be so traumatized that for a long time she has no speech; she can’t talk about her funhouse experience or anything else.

The next setting is the present, and Adelaide (impressive Oscar-winner [“12 Years a Slave”] Lupita Nyong’o), is now an adult, the wife and mother of two children in the upper-middle class, black Wilson family. The 1986 scenes have been a long flashback. Inexplicably, Adelaide has acquiesced in the family’s plan to vacation at the same Santa Cruz beach where, years ago, she experienced that epiphany of fear.

It’s clear before long, as the Wilsons look out the window of their lake house, that all of the Wilsons have their own “other” self. Those other selves are dressed in red overalls, perhaps to emphasize their working-class sensibilities, and to contrast with the Wilsons and their nearby friends (who include Kitty Tyler, played by Elisabeth Moss), who own boats, drive new cars, have credit cards, drink too much, live in literal glass houses, and haven’t paid enough attention to the rabble down in the tunnels. This is all made clear (or not so clear) by Red, the double of Adelaide, who rasps her way through a stern and sometimes incomprehensible indictment of the corrupt, unthinking Wilson family, while Adelaide is chained to the coffee table and the other Wilson family members imagine their throats will soon be cut.

It gets worse. In no time the Wilsons are in an epic, movie-long, blood-everywhere battle with their red-clad adversaries, reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971) and, better yet, “Funny Games” (1997), also set in a vacation home, by that master of domestic horror, Michael Haneke. “Home Alone” (1990) comes to mind too, as it did to Peele, who made his name in TV comedy and who can’t resist bringing up that silly film when he has the Wilson husband-father Gabe (Winston Duke) suggest, in all seriousness, that the family take its defensive cues from Macaulay Culkin. Later, during a brief respite from horror hysteria, when it’s all too obvious that the family should get in the car and just “get out,” Gabe asserts that “we’re as safe here as any place.” If there’s a point to Gabe’s naiveté, it’s to raise the gender issue. Men can’t defend the family. Not only does Adelaide tell Gabe “you’re not making the decisions anymore,” but she strides through the last half of the film confidently wielding a deadly poker. Visions of Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” franchise.

Menacing doppelgangers wreak blood-strewn havoc in “Us

Peele may know what the Wilsons have done to deserve this assault, but the Wilsons do not. Nor does the audience. Those seeking clarification of Peele’s social justice perspective will no doubt head to Wikipedia to look up Jeremiah 11:11, a Biblical reference featured (all too) prominently on a placard held by a homeless beach dweller. It’s the stern God of the Old Testament, at his nasty best. Maybe that explains everything. Or perhaps it’s enough to conclude “Get Out!” was all about race, while “Us” is all about class.

“Us” has been an enormous hit at the box office, and it’s not because audiences admire Peele’s feminism, share his critique of middle-class materialism, value his reminder that half the American population has little to show for its efforts and is miserable and out for vengeance, or revel in God’s punishment for the sins of humankind. No, the seats are full because horror is reliably popular fare, and Peele does it well. “Us” is an end-to-end thriller, a real fingernails-in-the-Naugahyde, spill-the-popcorn, maybe-we-should-leave epic, and it has a bold twist at the end. The score, which includes a slow, dark, remixed version of “I Got 5 on It,” the 1995 hit by Oakland rap duo Luniz, contributes to the hand-wringing tension. For those who want more — who want to know what the people in red are doing down in the tunnels and what they have to offer the regular folks on the surface — well, you figure it out.

Us ★★1/2 Directed by Jordan Peele.With Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Madison Curry, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex​.

William Graebner & Dianne Bennett
William Graebner and Dianne Bennett cowrote the "Critic's Notebook" column from 2016 through mid-2019.

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