Jordan Peele’s “US” is A Terrifying Hall of Mirrors

Mirrors have been a tool in the horror genre since its inception. I think of the shattered mirror in Carrie as she gets ready for the prom, the REDRUM laden mirror in The Shining and more recently the sinister, inescapable reflections terrorizing Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Just like those movies, Jordan Peele’s US uses the mirror (literal and figurative) to send a message to his audience. 

Our story begins in 1986 Santa Cruz. Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is celebrating her birthday with her parents (Anna Diop and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) on the boardwalk. After her father has won her a “Thriller” t-shirt, he starts playing Whack a Mole as her mother makes her way to the bathroom. Adelaide wanders off to the beach as her father becomes more engrossed with his game, finding herself in a funhouse hall of mirrors. As she makes her way deeper into the maze, she becomes unsettled and tries to makes her way to the exit but bumps into a mirror wall and realizes what she saw was merely a reflection. As she backs away and tries to calm down, she turns around and sees something so terrifying that it registers as pure horror across her face. The screen cuts to black before we get to see what it was that scared her so deeply. 

Fast forward to present day. Adelaide (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) is on her way to her summer house along with her husband (Winston Duke) and two kids: daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). When it’s announced the family will be headed to the very beach she went to as a child Adelaide stiffens, refusing at first before conceding to her husband’s wishes. We see through flashbacks that whatever she saw that night in the funhouse scarred her so deeply that it forced her into silence. Later, she overheard a conversation between a child psychologist and her parents that the symptoms she had been exhibiting since the incident in the funhouse were similar to PTSD. 

“She wasn’t in ‘Nam,” her father says, insisting that she wasn’t even alone for that long, before her mother jumps in and reminds him that “You don’t know what she saw.” We, the audience don’t know either, but whatever it was it’s still lingering. Nyong’o’s performance is extremely committed from the very beginning; though there’s gaps in our understanding of Adelaide’s journey from childhood to adulthood, she fills in the blanks effectively enough to convey to the audience that whatever happened to her is deeply unsettling; we can feel her anxiety skyrocket as the family car nears closer and closer to the beach (but more on that later). 

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It isn’t long before the action begins: as the family gets ready to turn in for the evening, they notice what looks like a group of people standing in their drive way. The mysterious figures make their way into the house (by force) and settle in front of the fireplace as the Wilsons look on in horror. “It’s us” Jason astutely states as one of them lights a fire, revealing their faces. Each family member has their own doppelgänger, one more terrifying than the next, donning a red jumpsuit, gloves and a pair of menacing scissors. They’re led by Adelaide’s double, named Red, who is the only member who seems to know English. She speaks in an extremely hoarse voice as if she’s just been strangled to within an inch of her life. When asked who they are, she chuckles. We’re Americans.” 

Red regales the family with a fairy tale of a princess born in the light, who enjoyed the finest of everything while her shadow suffered and ate “raw rabbit.” It doesn’t take long for us to decipher she’s talking about herself and Adelaide, who is so terrified she’s sweating bullets, unable to speak just like that night in the funhouse. Red belongs to a class of people called “The Tethered,” a group of people living underground in an abandoned system of tunnels, forced to imitate and repeat the actions of their near-clones living above ground. But Red’s arrival signals the end of that era; The Tethered have had enough, and now it’s their time to live in the light and enjoy the finer things. 

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So, what does it all mean exactly? Peele must have something to say, right? Well, it’s about us (no pun intended). “It’s about us,” he explained at the SXSW premiere, “looking at ourselves as individuals and as a group. The protagonist in the movie is the surrogate for the audience, so it felt like at the end of the day, I wasn’t doing my core theme any justice if I wasn’t revealing that we have been the bad guy in this movie.”

I’m not going to spoil anything beyond that, because much of the film’s magic comes from watching Peele place the pieces down until they coalesce into an unsettling puzzle. But Us is not Get Out part two. Get Out was a lean, 104 minutes long; each moment felt perfectly utilized in service of Peele’s message about race in America. Though only a few minutes longer, Us does feel a bit more padded and has more ideas swirling around the overall message. Where Get Out offered a clear, finite resolution in its story, Us leaves questions unanswered and anxieties unquelled. In the week since its release, there have been many who feel not everything works and the meaning behind the madness feels convoluted. I wouldn’t say those qualms are wrong, there are definitely moments where it felt like Peele was starting to trip over the wires he laid down, but they just didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It’s not wrong to recognize that Get Out is stronger as a film, but Us is still an audacious achievement, especially considering that it’s only Peele’s second film as a director. He has mentioned in numerous interviews that with this film, he wanted to do something completely different. This is unmistakably a Jordan Peele film, though entirely different from his breakout. I can respect his attempt to paving new ground while still staying true to his strengths as a storyteller.

Even if you find Us to be frustrating narratively, one thing everyone can agree on is Lupita Nyong’o’s performances as both Adelaide and Red that are the film’s crowning achievements.  This should come as no surprise to anyone; Nyong’o is a classically trained actress who won an Academy Award for her debut performance as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave. She beat out the scenery chewing (and microwave exploding) Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, which was something of a miracle. Though not the focus of the film, Nyong’o made use of her very limited screen time to create a fully realized character. It’s rare that a Supporting Actress contender is actually a supporting character, and not just a lead being campaigned otherwise for the sake of nailing a nomination. Nyong’o gives a largely silent performance, relying mostly on her eyes. When Patsey does get the chance to speak, Nyong’o delivers a monologue so undeniably powerful it makes you forget this is her first big screen role. It is seared in my memory.

After winning the Oscar, Nyong’o did not enjoy the same sort of post-Oscar success offered to white, breakout ingenues such as Alicia Vikander or her fellow-Best Supporting Actress nominee Lawrence. She did appear in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though as a CGI character and earned a Tony nomination for her work in Eclipsed but her Silver Linings Playbook or Tomb Raider reboot never came. It wouldn’t be until 2018’s Black Panther that Nyong’o appeared in the type of big budget studio film we associate with Oscar winners, though the lead of that film is inarguably Chadwick Boseman. Nyong’o is great as Nakia, but she is not the focal point. Us is the first time Nyong’o is the main attraction, and she doesn’t just carry the film on her back, she runs away with the whole thing. As she did with Patsey, Nyong’o silently traces a roadmap of these two women and their respective traumas. There is more exposition, but she leans into mannerisms and vocal affectations to really sell it, holding just enough back to pull the rug out from under out feet by the end. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a masterclass in acting by an actress who has finally been given the role of a lifetime. 

Regardless of where you land on Us, you cannot deny that once again Jordan Peele has got us talking. And while many have been fixated on the ‘what, why and how’ of it all, the dissent of opinion has been more fascinating to me than any concrete answer. It’s not very often that a piece of mainstream filmmaking is this fascinating, even rarer that a non-franchise film feels like a true event. Us is a piece of art that will be analyzed and studied for years to come. It’s a terrifying hall of mirrors. What do you see? The answer may haunt you. 

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Grade: A

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The Best Movies of 2018

2018  was one of the most grueling experiences in recent memory and as a result I’ve unfortunately been neglecting this blog. It was something that used to give me a lot of joy, and through personal and professional setbacks I have to admit that finding the drive to do anything outside of my day to day demands has been seemingly impossible. But one thing that has continued to give me joy, however, has been film. Without film and escapism, I’m not sure I would have made it through such an emotionally taxing year. Like a warm hug on the coldest, most bitter day, I knew I could always just take myself to the movies and forget my troubles for a few hours. I feel like I say that every year, but it has not stopped being true. 

Recently I’ve been re-discovering the joy in things I had thought I had lost, writing being one of them. It’s a chore I’ve avoided for too long, both recreationally and professionally.  I’m in a much better headspace than I was last year, with a renewed drive to continue to pursue things that give me joy. Let this be a promise that I hold myself to throughout 2019, that I push myself not only to continue the upkeep with this little blog of mine, but in the other endeavors I’ve been ignoring.

So, without further adieu, my favorite movies of 2018. 

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Final Academy Award Predictions

Tomorrow morning, the nominations for the 90th Academy Award ceremony will be revealed. Based on precursors, it’s going to be a big morning for The Shape of Water (which has been nominated by every major guild and won with the Producer’s) and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (our Best Picture frontrunner). I fully expect Get OutLady Bird and Dunkirk to get a healthy amount of nominations as well. The biggest question is how well passion picks like I, Tonya, Mudbound and Call Me By Your Name will do. Will the Academy resist the Netflix aspect of Mudbound‘s distribution? Was the BAFTA love for Darkest Hour a fluke? 

Below are my full list of nomination predictions. 

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Again and Again: “Happy Death Day” is A Surprisingly Subversive Horror-Comedy

Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) just can’t catch a break. After waking up in a strange boy’s (The Blind Ring’s Israel Broussard) dorm room after a night of heavy drinking, Tree is fighting a killer headache and must do the walk of shame, in which she tries to unsuccessfully attempts to dodge a pesky student protestor, a guy she’s been ghosting, and her sorority sisters. Later, she will be confronted with the wife of the professor she’s been having an affair with, but now she’s late for her surprise party because there’s a masked murderer trying to kill her. Oh, did I mention it’s also her birthday?

If this sounds like life is playing some cruel joke on her, then just wait till you hear the punchline. When the masked killer does in fact kill Tree (and they do), she wakes up again on the morning of her birthday, doomed to live out the same excruciating day again and again, and again until she can solve the mystery of her murder. 

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Oh “mother!” Darren Aronofsky’s Lurid Fever Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s first film since 2014’s Noah is, to put it simply, a lot. That’s certainly saying something; this is the director of Requiem for A Dream and Black Swan after all. But mother! makes those films feel like an warm up in a much larger exercise in psychological terror. The marketing campaign for mother! has revolved around keeping direct details about the film’s plot shrouded in secrecy. As the film has played at various film festivals, Aronofsky has moderated Q&A’s and screenings, hyping up the movie’s disturbing and polarizing nature. 

“Sorry for what I’m about to do,” he said on the stage at the Toronto Film Festival, going on to describe the film as “an assault” and “a cruise missile shooting into a wall.” “At the film’s premiere, he told reporters that, “You’re all really going to hate me in about an hour and a half.” 

There’s something to be said about a director wearing the negative press about his film like a badge of honor (Cinemascore revealed yesterday that audience members gave the film a rare F grade). In the case of mother! and Aronofsky, it only adds to my frustrations about the film. As I said, mother! is certainly a lot, and I did find my mouth hanging wide open during some moments, including the ludicrous climax, but not for the reasons the director/writer may have been hoping.

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“Alien: Covenant” Review: In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

It’s been several years since Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a film that deserved more critical praise than it received upon arrival.  Marketed as an attempt to lay the groundwork for what would ultimately become the prequel series to the wildly successful Alien and Aliens, Scott’s return to the series he created and then abandoned delivered a story that was not as concerned with its predecessors as some would have liked; rather than jump right into telling the story of how the xenomorphs came to be, he began laying the groundwork for something else entirely. Pivoting away from the horror and action themes that made the original films so popular, Prometheus instead delved into mythology and the origins of humanity, asking and raising many more questions than it answered by the time the credits began rolling. Some were swept away by the tense music, haunting visuals and attempt to breathe back life into an otherwise dead series. Others found themselves disappointed and angered by the gaps left unfilled and questions left unanswered. 

Enter Alien: Covenant, a film that manages to find a happy medium between the grand themes of Prometheus and the outright horror of Alien. Where its predecessor made constant strides to distinguish itself from its source material, Covenant attempts to build a bridge to connect the two, laying the groundwork for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to go head to head with the Queen Alien many years later. 

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