Skip to main content

Nobody wants the boat, dad.

Us
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Jordan Peele evidently loves his conspiracy lore, so he’ll probably appreciate inevitable theories that his sophomore movie, even with movie and literature antecedents and influences such as The Skeleton Key, C.H.U.D. and Wells’ Morlocks, is an exposé of celebrity cloning antics in underground bases and/or Vrill body snatching, right through to the facilities being shut down. I mean, he onlyoffers the most ungainly of expository monologues in the latter stages of Us to that essential effect, during which we’re told that these subterranean locales have been used in the past for producing soulless clones. It’s very on-the-nose material in that regard; the conspiracy-minded might suggest Peele has purposefully shoehorned his “revelation” into such a lumpen info-dump, one that invites ridicule and profoundly damages the architecture of the movie, in order to exhibit the truth in plain sight. Unfortunately, Us has little to offer beyond that bizarre, high-concept, retro-fitted premise (at least, the explanation plays as a retro-fitting of whatever more classical doppelgänger trappings he began with), and one has to assume the burden of Peele being perceived overnight as someone who says important things about society led to this bodge up.

Indeed, the movie gets so caught up in its rather banal riff on the concept of “the Other” that it forgets to do anything else plot-wise, quickly settling on having a family face off against its own dark inversion in a series of standard-issue run-and-escape and stand-and-fight set pieces. Substitute zombies for doubles and you pretty much have the thrust of the action beats – everyone (in America) has one, it seems, and they tethered to each other, to the extent that when their real-world counterparts spawn, so do they… No, none of itbears up to any kind of scrutiny, such that the instant Peele even had the impulse to try to anchor the proceedings to an attempted coherent, rational, plausible root cause, he was on to a loser. By falling into the trap of over-explaining, he invites over analysis of the logical howlers infesting every corner of his concept (right down to the matching jumpsuits and scissors provided to the multitudes of Tethered for a very uniformed insurgency).

Peele would have been infinitely better off leaving the whys and wherefores oh-so murky. The direct consequence of his decision is that Us is absent a proper sense of the uncanny beyond the opening scene, with nothing approaching, say, the mirror pull-back in Dust Devil or the primal dread of the moving painting in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Only one of the Tethered has a voice – the subject of a Shyamalan-esque twist that isn’t really very surprising, but more to the point, doesn’t really mean that much; indeed, as twists often do, it throws up its own host of objections once you try to break down its mechanics, and as noted, Peele, by his own self-immolating storytelling choices, very much invites that kind of objection – also redolent of several latter period zombie movies, making it much easier to hack up most of the monstrous Others with impunity (even if, as with zombie movies, they’re distorted, disfigured reflections of ourselves we’d rather sweep under the carpet).

Oddly, even though Peele ladles on the weird from the start – or perhaps because there’s no sense of normalcy broken – the film is supremelyun-scary. About as tense as it gets is the initial arrival of the Tethered outside the Wilson family’s door, but once their reflected selves are gathered for a fireside chat, any real fear factor goes out of the window. Indeed, when it becomes obvious that Peele isn’t going to mess with his family (their friends the Tylers are contrastingly thoroughly expendable, taken apart with gleeful Good Vibrations) it’s a further suspense-killer, that and his need to doggedly follow horror rule book clichés (making starkly stupid choices like going by car rather than boat, and back to the very location that’s so unnerved Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide – even or especially with the benefit of the hindsight of who she really is). Being a horror movie that knows it’s a horror movie, instead of killing the group without pause to shoot the shit as the doubles do with the Tylers, there’s prevarication/revealing of motivation and an obliging count-to-ten scenario before getting nasty, none of which exactly feeds into the fear factor. Indeed, the pacing of the picture rather induces, if not quite boredom, then certainly restlessness; as an essentially plot-lite tale, this could have done with being a brisk ninety minutes, maybe even pared down to the length one of Peele’s new Twilight Zone episodes.

The exposition scenes are symptomatic of hand-holding evident from the off; we’re told it’s 1986 via a (for Adelaide, profoundly influential) TV advert, but Peele doesn’t trust his audience to realise this, so in the very next scene offers an onscreen subtitle telling us the year and then has young Adelaide bought a Thriller t-shirt, just to underline the cultural epoch. The ensuing hall of mirrors scene is as creepy as Us gets, and it’s mostly downhill from there. Just about everything that doesn’t get under the skin here didin Karyn Kusama’s far superior The Invitation a few years back, where the familiar setting of the home and old friends was dramatically subverted and put frantically under threat, ultimately feeding in to a similar apocalyptic vision to this one; that film was tense and relentless, though, and didn’t feel like it was looking for subtextual interpretation to justify itself.

There are some good performances here, Nyong’o in particular, and the kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), although Winston Duke suffers somewhat with the hubby’s resolute recourse to mundane thinking and the need to serve as comic relief; on the one hand, Peele is taking his picture deadly seriously, on the other he is dropping in Home Alone references and conversations about who deserves the most credit for the highest kill count. It’s a jarring recourse to the wink-wink, and doesn’t gel in the way, say, Sam Raimi mixes laughs and scares. Mostly, though, Us simply fails to find its feet. Peele seems to be caught in a trap of expectation, after Get Out, that he will deliver both high concept and political context, but he rather fizzles with both here. He mighthave embraced his cloning conspiracy theme wholeheartedly – in a movie that also takes in the synchronicity favourite 11:11 (which came first, the 11:11 or the Jeremiah verse? I suspect the former, and that his research assistant was required to trawl through the scriptures until she found a vaguely fitting passage), fluoride in our drinking water, and the documented proliferation of underground bases – but seems content to leave it flailing in rather inert and ungainly fashion, instead remixing old standards, of going down the rabbit hole and fear of the Other.

As a result, various readings that may all be entirely valid hold little interest. One can go the Jungian route, or read into the Tethered versions of how other see us. Or they’re the down-trodden and neglected underclass: “We’re Americans” too. Or is Us a parable for closing ourselves off from the world/reality? Adelaide falls victim when she is drawn to a funfair and robed in the devious merchandising of a hugely influential, generation-polarising alleged paedophile. Technology actively assists (and mocks in choice of song to accompany our deaths) in the destruction of those who have retreated into self-contained worlds; those not plugged in (the Thomases are Wi-Fi free on holiday) stand more of a chance, and if we succumb, we’re left as burn-out hive-mind husks, doing what we’re told, lacking even a voice. Then there’s the older generation’s obliviousness of to the more alert younger’s warnings of catastrophe (fluoride as mind control), the latter being the ones who know who they really are. Most interesting, but not developed, are the guttural animalistic noises our heroes make as the experience the bloodlust of fighting back, suggesting they may be becoming the Tethered as they act more like them.

Does the twist retrospectively make Us more intriguing, inviting a desire to revisit it from the real Red’s point of view? No, not really. The picture would have needed to grip in the first place to have a hope of achieving that. The worrying takeaway is that Peele may be no more than the next M Night Shyamalan, following his debut with a much-anticipated movie that opens successfully before quickly stiffing when word gets out (this remains to be seen). But Us is worse; it’s closer to The Village, one of Night’s a few movies down the line, than it is the quite admirable Unbreakable. It’s symptomatic of a director believing their own hype and ending up looking unflattering like they’re suffering a major attack of the emperor’s new clothes. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.