“Blink, and you might miss it” is the great, contradictory nature of horror. Spontaneity is an on-ramp to FOMO when watching a scary movie; there’s a reason the genre is so closely associated to images of multiplex audiences practically peeling back their eyelids like they themselves are the target of the flashing knife, the pouncing boogeyman, the black-magic spell being cast.
For as long as we’ve been terrified by the nightmarish images conjured up by Hollywood’s twisted minds, we’ve been equally as enamored. Our hands can be cages in which we’d gladly cut ourselves off from watching what unfolds on-screen, but – to borrow from the same metaphor – our fingers are also the bars. And some deep-rooted force is typically victorious at encouraging us to bear witness.
Blink, and you might miss it in Jordan Peele’s new film, “Us,” as well. Its scares are just a few notches towards “Oh, hell no” territory than Peele’s excellent directorial debut, even as the atmosphere in his sophomore effort is made much more hazy in tension from start to end. Larger amounts of blood are spilled, menace is explicit to a much higher degree and, before this story even really begins, Peele makes us ponder what could be lying beneath our very feet.
But blink in your head, decide to ignore the terrifying machinations of our own society like we most likely do on a daily basis…therein, Peele is saying once again, likes a more lethal kind of repudiation.
Unlike “Get Out” – a phenomenon that netted Peele an Academy Award and that feels destined to be dissected in film studies courses as often as it’s playing in the background of college parties – “Us” becomes more acutely and more existentially a sociological think-piece the more it goes on. Where it’s easy to be fully satisfied by “Get Out” only to later realize how completely you missed what it was Really Saying, “Us’s” textual layers aren’t as easily distinguished.
The film’s marketing hasn’t been a total lie—“Us,” ostensibly a home invasion story about a family pushed to access a hibernating capacity for violence that exists in all of us, is very straightforward…until it isn’t. It’s a bloody, hugely suspenseful carnival ride, and the fun part is (arguably) deciphering how fast it’s gonna go before the bottom falls out.
It’s when “Us” vastly expands past the boundaries we thought appropriate to place on it that Peele’s ambitions come into focus. Simply put: They’re immense, the themes as grand as they are ambiguous. Even as “Us” gets to the point where you begin to scratch your head a bit – and that point is inevitable – Peele displays a confidence and sense of intent that hangs like a dark cloud over the proceedings, if only because we know, from deep down in our frolicking-in-the-sunfields sense of humanity, that we would rather absorb his cinematic parables through caged fingers.
But what else might you be censoring yourself from seeing? For one, a darkly grand and grandly dark turn from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide, essentially facing down herself between a cautious mother and mysterious, scissors-clenching double. There are layers of complexity to her story that I wouldn’t dare reveal, but suffice to say she harnesses her Oscar-certified prowess to arresting effect, distilling the essence of the haunted and the hunted to its core.
Winston Duke’s star continues to ascend as well, providing a sizeable proportion of the movie’s humor and humanity as the world around his family goes to absolute hell. His Gabe is stripped of the feigned Rambo-caliber masculinity that “Us” might have associated him with in the hands of another director, but the way he and Nyong’o – along with Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, playing their children and not without their own moments to shine (and kill) – work in tandem as a wholly believable portrait of how a black family, one already facing societal disadvantages, would react in these circumstances.
This isn’t the same incessant seamlessness of “Get Out’s” storytelling; the pacing gets pretty muddled in a third act that exhibits equal capacity for enthralling, frustrating and confusing. And there’s perhaps no single metaphor as perfect or as wicked as the Sunken Place. But “Us” will take firm root in your mind if you allow it to, if you indulge in retracting your steps through its symbolically dense forests and examine the breadcrumb trail along the way. You’ll almost certainly find branching paths that didn’t exist on an initial viewing; by the time the credits roll, “Us” has made one of the most tantalizing cases since the early days of Shyamalan for paying $10 a second time at the theater.
A rewatch is nearly impossible not to be tempted by. It’s a rare, special kind of filmmaking effort that makes audience fear both the visceral and the implied, and Peele is now 2-for-2 in that regard. The horror genre, already experiencing its own golden age, is all the better for it, and seeing how his influence spreads will be fascinating to watch. In a mere two films, the protégé has become a master of meaningful suspense.
“Us’s” trailer irreversibly changed how we would respond to Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” from now on. You can expect “Us” to do the same for certain iconic tunes from The Beach Boys and N.W.A., scissors, fun houses, boardwalks and potentially several other everyday aspects of your life, depending on what you believe Peele is trying to say.
You can create a straightforward story with complex inner workings. And then you can do what Peele perhaps now has a trademark penchant for: Create a story that feigns straightforwardness – though not for lack of entertainment – until it looks around to look at you, staring threateningly and pushing you into an abyss you didn’t know was behind you all along. The inner workings, meanwhile, just grow more labyrinthian; even when Peele throws us a bone, there’s an immense amount of symbolism and Deeper Meaning to be mined. The internet no doubt has its next maze to obsessively find every possible path through.
You won’t leave “Us” the first time without being perplexed. For many it will flip a switch, making conversation and dissection of its narrative an active choice. For a genre film, that’s a minor miracle. It’s more than most movies do these days and, yes, more than we ask them to in some audience’s cases. “Us” will not please everybody in that regard; it is not an escapist movie. We’re just not getting off that easily.
Peele encourages and pushes us to comprehend what we’re seeing in “Us” nonetheless, not because he thinks he knows better…but because, I think, he believes it’s worth giving a damn to look beneath the surface in a time and in a world where we wouldn’t dare. Where we’d rather blink, and blink, and blink.
Paul Thomas Anderson might be the sole working director that makes for apt comparison; but even his audience is still so niche. Both filmmakers grease the edges of their narratives with such mystery that is never fully explained, but you can’t help wanting to get at the black heart of it.
At one point early in “Us,” Zora – the wise-cracking daughter in the family – says, “No one cares about the end of the world.” Well, at least Peele is here to help us figure out how the hell we brought it upon ourselves. Better late than never, right?
“Us” is rated R for violence/terror and language
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Directed by Jordan Peele