Us

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer: Jordan Peele


Not long after Us was released Jordan Peele premiered his revival of The Twilight Zone. While the reception was somewhat mixed and the show’s quality tended to vary with each episode (which, to be fair, has almost always been the case with anthologies), it left no doubt in my mind that he is the 21st century successor to Rod Serling. First with Get Out and now his sophomore outing as a filmmaker, Peele has displayed a dazzling genius for counterpointing personal drama with surreal concepts, all in service of delivering a larger message about society and morality. While Us is categorically a different kind of film from the dark, racially-focused satire that Get Out was, there are parallels and contrasts that are worth observing. Both are films that delve into the tumultuous state of the American condition, both depict Kafkaesque nightmares that border on the paranormal, and both convey their narratives using the language of horror cinema. Where they differ the most is that Get Out had such an alarming clarity to its vision and themes whereas Us is a messier film that seems concerned with more abstract and intangible ideas than its predecessor, the nature of which are not as immediately apparent (which isn’t necessarily a weakness). Us is also more explicitly a horror than it is a comedy; the film is a frightening home invasion thriller with a sinister Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist in which we are revealed to be our own worst enemies.

Peele wastes no time in getting things started on as ominous a note as he can possibly conjure. The opening statement announces that “there are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental U.S.” and that “many have no known purpose at all”. With that unsettling detail of a lost, mysterious chapter in recent American history, the film moves on to a scene in Santa Cruz in 1986. A little girl (Madison Curry) is on a day out with her family at the funfair, trying to enjoy the games and attractions while her parents bitterly bicker at every opportunity. She eventually wanders off while her Dad is distracted and happens upon an empty hall of mirrors by the stranded beach. The inside is dark and deserted enough that any kid would be creeped out by the warped and twisted reflections within, but the girl ends up seeing something far more disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that we aren’t allowed a proper glimpse at this point. Peele instead shows us the little girl’s shocked, eye-widening reaction, then immediately cuts to the main titles, where the camera slowly zooms out from the image of a caged rabbit to reveal it as just one among many. What has actually happened and what does the strange text and imagery even mean? You’ll have to watch to find out. And even then you still might not have a clear answer.

The film picks up with a now grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) on holiday with her sweet lunk of a husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children, bratty daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and oddball son Jason (Evan Alex). The Wilson family is bound for their lake house in Santa Cruz, where Adelaide had her distressing episode all those years ago, and the traumas of that memory are beginning to resurface. The summer house itself is pleasant enough and the other family members certainly enjoy themselves as they make for the beach with their wealthy and rather one-dimensional (intentionally so) friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), but Adelaide is far too apprehensive to relax with them. When Jason wanders off and Adelaide realises that they are within a stone’s throw of that same hall of mirrors, she erupts into a full-blown panic until her ingenuous son reappears, completely unharmed. That night Adelaide’s fears prove not to be unfounded when a family of four, identical to their own in almost every way, appears on their doorstep dressed in uniform red jumpsuits, wielding oversized, golden scissors, and scarcely making a move or even a sound. Who these people are, beyond being uncanny doppelgängers of the Wilsons, and exactly what they want is yet to be revealed, but the harm they intend on Adelaide and her family is immediately clear.

Each actor in this film must perform double duty, playing not only their given characters but also their respective doppelgängers. This point merits emphasis because the performances are so transformative you can scarcely believe that they come from the same individuals. Yet what makes the duality so disturbing is how closely each double reflects their counterpart like those warped funhouse mirrors. It’s Dr. Jekyll’s evil alter ago brought to terrifying life en masse; the ‘Tethered’, as they call themselves, are the living manifestations of our greatest insecurities, anxieties and fears. They are “us”, as Jason so rightly observes and, after living entire lifetimes of neglect and malnourishment, they’ve come to exact a vengeful reckoning. Each actor rises to the task of playing their twisted selves, Duke as a lumbering hulk, Joseph as a gleefully homicidal menace, and Alex as a rabid pyromaniac. Nyong’o meanwhile is performing on a whole other level as Red, the wrathfully calculating mother figure and the only one of the Tethered who can speak. Croaking her words in a deep, suffocated voice, she talks in fables and riddles of the bloody vendetta their people have come to wreak. Her deeply, agonisingly expressive deliveries and perverse body language are so eerie, so full of aching pathos while still remaining so inscrutable and otherworldly, that to call it a great performance seems inadequate. Nyong’o’s acting feat, both physical and emotional, is nothing short of superhuman.

There’s more going on here than psychological horror though. The allusions to all those forgotten tunnels beneath the ground, the recurring motif of the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 (a passage that promises divine punishment), and also the references to Hands Across America, a national, Reagan-era charity event where millions of people held hands across the breadth of the country to fight hunger and homelessness; there’s a political statement here that Peele is trying to make. It’s not an accident that the title Us also happens to be the acronym for United States. “We’re Americans”, says Red when asked who they are and it speaks to a larger truth beyond its most simple, literal sense (which is explained at length in the third act). They are an underclass; a marginalised, voiceless, forgotten many living in the shadows and the dark corners of the world. They embody our most violent and hateful impulses and they reflect an unsavoury, repellent side of history, society and culture that the human race has worked hard to bury so that they need never be confronted. They aren’t some foreign, alien threat who have conspired from afar to bring about the country’s doom nor are they mindless monsters moving without method or motive. They are “us”; the incarnation of our most destructive and detestable instincts and the greatest threat we face in the world today.

The idea that humanity is its own worst enemy is apt for a film where sometimes Peele is the victim of his own vision. While his skills as a horror director are as masterful as ever, Us is such a thematically dense film that it can sometimes feel like he’s lost his way as he attempts to tie all things together into a single, coherent whole. As everything between the Wilsons and their Tethered opposites come to a head and it starts to feel like the movie ought to start wrapping things up, the film keeps on going. We’re then treated to some exposition where many of our most pressing questions are given answers but, even then, the film keeps on going until it feels like Peele is trying too hard to make the metaphor work. It’s not that the ending is bad or that the point of it all gets completely lost, it’s more like the overall vision Peele has for this film isn’t as wholly realised and perfectly self-contained as it was in Get Out and it’s all he can do to keep the thematic house of cards he’s built from collapsing under the weight of its own convolutedness or the pressures of scrutiny. Again, this isn’t necessarily a fault with the film. In fact, there’s something about its imperfection that makes this film all the more terrifying; as if the reality of our lesser selves is as inescapable for those who made this film as it is for its characters.

★★★★★

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Top 10 Films of 2017

Here are my 10 favourite films of 2017.

10. Baby Driver – Edgar Wright

Baby Driver

An irresistibly enjoyable film made by one of the most inventive directors working today. Bringing together the car-chase thrillers of Burt Reynolds and Steve McQueen and the classic musicals of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Baby Driver is a splendid, song-filled joy ride from beginning to end. Telling the story of a hearing-impaired, baby-faced getaway driver trying to leave his life of crime behind so he can run away with his sweetheart, this is a film bursting to the seams with life and energy. Wright is on top form as he takes through Baby’s musical world with all the creativity and imagination he’s known for. In one scene where Baby is simply walking down the street to pick up some coffee, Wright matches his surroundings with the tone and tempo and song he’s listening to and lines him up with a variety of visual cues. By doing so he is showing us how completely in sync Baby is with the world around him and he brings them together in a perfect harmony. The story itself isn’t anything great, but who cares about that when you’ve got style, character, and heart? This movie has got plenty and it is a delight to sit through. This is an idea that should’ve definitely not worked, but those kinds of ideas are Edgar Wright’s bread and butter. Review here.

 

 9. The Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin

This was one of the funniest and most agonising movies I’ve seen in a while. Depicting the death of a man who was so feared by his own people that a simple request for a recording of a radio broadcast was enough to send a studio into pandemonium, The Death of Stalin finds humour in the terror and shows the chaotic, morbid aftermath for the horrifying farce that it was. Plots were schemed, backdoor deals were struck, and shots were fired, all in the interest of consolidating power in this tyrannical state where saying the wrong thing (or even appearing to) will get you killed before you can say “long live Stalin”. Even as Stalin lay their on the urine-soaked floor, nobody even dared suggest that he might need a doctor for fear that he would hear them, recover, and regard them as traitors for their lack of faith. It works because the characters do not realise that they are in a comedy, they are simply subjects of the pressures and anxieties of Stalinist Russia scrambling to get ahead of each other by any means necessary. They hatch their diabolical plans and exploit their hapless subordinates and the humour comes with the ever-rising absurdity, desperation and horror of it all. Iannucci assembles a first-rate cast and together they’ve deliver a comedy so unbearable you won’t know whether to laugh or tear your own hair out. Review here.

 

 8. War for the Planet of the Apes – Matt Reeves

War for the Planet of the Apes

I still cannot believe that a movie about sentient apes fighting a war against humankind ended up being one of my favourite films of the year, but here we are. It is the conclusion to an epic trilogy about evolution, survival, and humanity where it all builds up to an all out war between the humans and the apes, both of whom are fighting for their very existence. It is a costly war for both sides and, when Caesar ends up paying a price that is too terrible and tragic to bear, it becomes about nothing more than vengeance. So it is for The Colonel as well, a leader being confronted with the very extinction of his species and responding in the only way he knows how: blood, revenge, and death. Serkis and Harrelson are both excellent at playing these mirror images of each other, two men (so to speak) shaped by a lifetime of violence and misfortune who no longer have anything left to lost except their humanity. It is a brutal and deeply tragic war, more so because in the middle of it all we can see that the possibility for compassion and co-existence is there, if only things had gone differently. Review here.

 

7. Coco – Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

Coco

Based heavily on Mexican folklore and culture, Coco marks a bigger departure for Pixar than usual, but one that works wonderfully. Through the story of a young boy with dreams of becoming a musician who ends up meeting his ancestors in the Land of the Dead, the film tells a moving, poignant tale about family and legacy and the power of music to bring people together. Like the best Pixar movies it is complex yet comprehensible, huge yet intimate, and fun yet emotional. It depicts the tale of a journey, again like all Pixar films do, one full of twists and turns, many of which you may very well see coming but which still feel no less touching or rewarding because of it. It captures a tone that you don’t see often in American films (never mind animated or Hollywood films!), one that assumes a distinctly Central-American point-of-view. With the way it expresses its views on spirituality and family, Coco feels like an honest representation of the culture it portrays as opposed to an Americanised version of that culture. The animation is breathtaking, the music is delightful, the performances are wonderful, there is no end to the list of what makes Coco great. It is Pixar doing what they do best: telling great stories to an audience of all ages.

 

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Rian Johnson

The Last Jedi

After The Force Awakens played it safe with its revival of the epic sci-fi/fantasy saga, The Last Jedi has sought to take more risks and take the story into new directions. It was a bold move and I think it paid off. The Last Jedi does more than any Star Wars movie since the Original Trilogy to lead the franchise into uncharted waters and expand on the mythos in unprecedented ways. It harkens to the past and considers the role it does and should have on shaping the present before ultimately passing the torch and moving the story onwards into an unknown but promising future. Along the way it provides us with superb action, enjoyable laughs, and incredible character moments particularly where Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke are concerned. All three characters feel trapped and lost by the traumas of their pasts and through them the film is able to explore fascinating ideas around the themes of legacy, destiny, and redemption. With such sequences as the fight in the throne room and the showdown on the salt planet, The Last Jedi also triumphs as the best-directed, most visually magnificent Star Wars film to date. The Force Awakens left me feeling relieved about the future of Star Wars. Today, The Last Jedi has me feeling excited. Review here.

 

5. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk

Probably the single most cinematic experience I’ve had this year, Dunkirk is truly something to behold. The scale of this film is epically immense and it is bursting with breathtaking images and earth-shattering sounds that will shake you to your core. Telling the story of the 1940 British evacuation from Nazi-occupied France across three separate timelines, Nolan has constructed a masterwork in tension and suspense that perhaps not even Hitchcock could have believed. The movie picks up its momentum from the first frame and never lets it go for a second. Even when it appears that things have calmed down for some of the characters, we can never relax because we know that it’s just the calm before the next storm. There is very little of the brutal war imagery that you might have seen in the likes of Hacksaw Ridge, but the emotional turmoil that Nolan taps into through his characters is so agonising and dreadful that Dunkirk proves every bit as devastating as even the bloodiest, most barbaric of war films. And yet, in all of the film’s sheer range and scale, the humanity is never lost. You feel like you really are there with the characters, which makes you root all the harder for their survival. In the end, when the survivors do finally make it out, it’s almost like you’ve been holding your breath the entire time and now, finally, you get to let out a sigh of relief. Review here.

 

4. mother! – Darren Aronofsky

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother! Credit: Paramount Pictures

Honestly, I keep going back and forth on this one and I debated whether to include it on the list at all. On one hand it is a difficult film to watch; it is antagonistically inaccessible, often grotesque, and relentlessly inscrutable. On the other, it is a fascinatingly crafted and dreadfully compelling film that demands to be watched, analysed, and debated. In the months since the film’s release I’ve talked about mother! to numerous people and have yet to encounter a mild or indifferent take on the film. It is an extreme film and everyone who has gone to see it has had an extreme reaction, both positive and negative. Even my initial reaction, indecisiveness, was extreme. The more I’ve thought and read about mother! though, the less interested I’ve gotten in determining whether it is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ film. It certainly has good aspects; Aronofsky’s direction and Libatique’s cinematography made for a visually engrossing experience and Lawrence was stellar throughout. What’s more important, to me anyway, is that mother! is truly unlike anything else I’ve seen this year (and most of what I’ve seen full stop) and it left me all at once astounded, perplexed, confounded, disgusted, traumatised, and deeply affected in a way that I cannot explain. I will take that over mild amusement any day. Review here.

 

3. Get Out – Jordan Peele

Get Out

Perhaps the most timely movie to come out all the year, Get Out is a film that needed to be released in 2017. It takes the story of a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s left-wing, suburban family and turns it into a horror film. It’s a comedy as well, except the subject is so relevant to what’s happening in the USA today that you can barely bring yourself to laugh for fear you might cry. Peele displays an uncanny understanding of what it really means to be black in America today and he unpacks it here in a terribly clever way while still allowing the film to be enormously entertaining. It pays to rewatch this movie because it is only the second (or third, or fourth, or…) viewing that you start to appreciate the attention to detail in this meticulously crafted story with its subtle clues and expert use of foreshadowing. What is immediately apparent on the first viewing though is the eerie sense of dread and uneasiness that Peele is able to convey that takes us from the fish-out-of-water sensation that Chris feels in this setting to his increasingly overwhelming suspicion that something is seriously amiss. If I could only recommend one movie on this list to everyone, it would be Get Out. It’s too good and too important not to watch. Review here.

 

2. Logan – James Mangold

Logan

This was somehow both the Wolverine film I always wanted and didn’t know I wanted. It delivers all the R-rated cussing and bloodiness that the character has always needed to truly come into his own, but it also tells a profound, sophisticated story through the character that raises him to greater emotional and thematic heights than ever before and it provides an eye-opening commentary on the superhero movies as a genre. Logan was of course Jackman’s final outing as the mutant that made him a star and he has never been better. He is old, haggard and disillusioned and the father-figure who once inspired him is now a raving loony who can no longer control his immensely powerful and dangerous mind. When circumstances force him to escort a young girl to the Canadian border, the journey that unfolds is a turbulent one that forces Logan to confront the ghosts and demons of his past and challenges the superhero mythos that has developed in the 17 years since the first X-Men movie in a way that no other movie in this genre has ever done. The character work done with Logan, Laura and Charles Xavier is wonderful and the film’s deconstruction of superhero movies (the never-ending cycle of violence, the paradoxical morality, the inherent trauma of self-sacrificing heroism) makes it the best contribution to the genre since The Dark Knight. This is great and touching a swan song as you could possibly give a character this popular and iconic. Review here.

 

1. Blade Runner 2049 – Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049

The most visually stunning film of the year and also, I think, the most profound. A common mistake often seen in ambitious science fiction is this tendency to focus on complex, philosophical themes without taking the time to establish an emotional connection with the audience, resulting in a film that feels convoluted, self-indulgent, and empty. Blade Runner 2049 is an ambitious film but it is also a deeply moving one with great characters and a gripping plot, both of which add emotional stakes to the themes being explored. It takes the ideas of humanity and existence that Scott’s 1982 masterpiece explored so beautifully and expands on them in astonishing ways, aided in no small part by Deakins’ stunning imagery. Every single frame is a breathtaking work of art and the poetry they bring to the story being told is what elevated this film beyond all the others I saw this year. In the scene where K is approached by a giant hologram at his greatest moment of despair, I was moved not just by the beauty of the image but also by how it perfectly encapsulated the devastation and loss he feels in the face of the cost he has had to pay to get to the truth. It is a perfectly crafted film that tells a wonderfully constructed story. Review here.

 

Honourable Mention: Twin Peaks: The Return – David Lynch

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I could not in good conscience include Twin Peaks in my top 10 film list because it is, despite what Lynch himself says, television. Even so, I still want to take the chance to write about this 18-hour tour de force because I found it to be my most emotionally tumultuous viewing experience of the year. At times I loved it and at others I hated it. Sometimes I felt like I could see the order and meaning beneath all the madness and at others I found myself utterly baffled and completely lost. And yet, no matter how confusing, frustrating, or downright impenetrable this show got, I was captivated by every single second of it. Rejecting the rules of traditional storytelling, Twin Peaks is instead more like a composition of dreamlike images and sounds that follow their own internal logic and it is a series that defies categorisation and convention. Lynch has always been one of those directors who has never had any interest in straightforward narratives or playing to an audience and he has only gotten more cryptic with age. Here he takes countless unprecedented chances with the absolute confidence of a master and has created something truly new, strange and transcendent unlike anything else in the history of television. From the mystery of the Black Lodge to the silliness of Dougie Jones to the darkness of the atom bomb and the evil force it created, this was a wild rollercoaster of a series and was more challenging and confounding than anything I saw in the cinema, but also more fascinating and overwhelming.

Get Out

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer: Jordan Peele


Get Out is one of those movies that works on so many levels in so many different yet complementary ways that it defies any easy categorisation or labels. It’s a comedy, but not in a laugh-out-loud sense. You can hardly bring yourself to laugh because of the horror of it all. Yet it’s not the kind of horror movie where you get an escapist thrill from the scares, because the story is far too relevant to the world we live in. It is a social commentary, but it is a wildly entertaining one that expertly delivers its message without beating us over the head with it. It is a movie made by a director with a deep understanding of the state of African-Americans in the USA today and talented enough to present that point in a way that is both enjoyable and terrifying. The most prevalent and iconic image in the film is that of a young black man crying. The film weeps for the world that made a movie like this necessary, and while watching it you won’t know whether to laugh, cry, or scream.

The movie follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer, who has been dating his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for some months. He reluctantly agrees to accompany her on a weekend retreat at her suburban childhood home to meet her family, uncertain of how warm his welcome will really be. There he meets her neurosurgeon father Dean (Bradley Whitford), her psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they make a liberal, left-leaning white family who continuously make awkward comments about how totally cool they are with black people (“If I could, I would have voted for Obama for a third term” says Dean). Chris however starts to get the sense that something is really off about this place when he meets the family’s black employees Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of whom seem eerily compliant with their roles of servitude. Chris shares his concerns with his best friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), who is convinced that something twisted and sinister is going on, and the longer Chris sticks around the more he starts to agree.

The premise then is that Peele has taken liberal, suburban racism, and turned it into a horror film. As a director he exhibits a fluent command over the language of horror cinema and is able to convey an uncanny sense of terror and paranoia in this seemingly innocent, vanilla setting. It’s in the way that the camera lingers on some people and things for just a little too long. It’s in the imagery that is just sinister enough to make us feel like something is definitely off about this place but is also subtle enough that we quite cannot quite put our fingers on it, like with the row of black cars full of white people arriving at the driveway. It’s in the downplayed, natural performances delivered by the actors that somehow make their characters seem all the more menacing. It’s the air of ambiguous dread that echoes movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Innocents, where there is just enough peculiarity for Chris to be suspicious but enough doubt for him to think that he might be imagining it all. Then there’s the ‘Sunken Place’, an image that brings to life our protagonist’s greatest fears and anxieties and as nightmarish a symbol of suppression as there’s ever been in cinema.

The horror of course stems from racism in America, but here it isn’t all just the overt, conservative, aggressive brand of racism that has already been much explored in films by and/or about African-Americans and that has sadly received much publicity in the year since the film’s release. Here it extends to other facets of racism including that of society’s progressive, left-leaning side, which goes far beyond awkward white people trying to make innocuous conversation with black people to show them how open-minded and tolerant they are. Even when Chris is welcomed into his white girlfriend’s family with open arms, he can never feel at ease there because their behaviour and attitude towards him is founded on stereotypes and political correctness and, as he later learns, his situation is a precarious one that can be taken away from him against his will. The film also explores such themes as the representation of African-Americans in media and culture, black masculinity, racism’s roots in history and many others with such wit and creativity that it never for a second feels forced or banal. The way Peele is able to present the plot in an engaging way and interweave symbols that build on the story and characters while still connecting with something larger and relevant to out world is nothing short of masterful.

Get Out is such scary film, not only because of the larger implications of its story but also in light of all that has occurred prior and subsequent to its release, that it seems rather misleading to label it as a comedy. But that is what it is, just not in the same way as Life of Brian or Ghostbusters. Get Out is more like an episode of Black Mirror where the initial concept, once you fully realise what it is, seems absurd and laughable at first until you give it time to really sink in. There is very little in this movie that will make you laugh outright (apart from Howery’s much needed comic relief), but there are many that will give you the nervous, knowing kind of humour where you cannot bring yourself to laugh for fear that you might cry. Get Out is not just a wonderfully made, thoroughly absorbing, insanely clever film, it is a film that needed to be made exactly when and where it was made. It captures a snapshot of contemporary society that is so horrifying and uncomfortable you will not be able to look away from it any more than Chris can look away from his window into the outside world from the Sunken Place.

★★★★★