Author: Cameron Fairchild
You know that scene in The Force Awakens where Rey and Finn are running from Stormtroopers, and they’re looking for a ship to escape in, and then Rey says, “let’s take that piece of junk,” only for the camera to swish over to the Millennium Falcon, which is just kind of there? You know how that moment makes The Force Awakens feel just a little bit too satisfied with itself, because it happened to remember that a thing existed in other Star Wars movies it knows you liked, and as a result of that self-satisfaction the film feels less like it exists in its own space, and more like its trying really hard to be great by taking great ideas that other people had?
I have a real problem with pastiche. This is not a fair thing, and more of a pedantic film nerd thing, to find irritating, but I’ll make this argument anyways. An example: Guillermo del Toro makes non-horror films using monsters he liked when he was a kid, and so we’ve gotten an entire filmography that foregrounds a pretty boring thesis: “Remember these?” It’s not surprising that nostalgia is so rampant when a movie like The Shape of Water wins Best Picture—reheating old images to briefly produce a shadow of that image’s initial source. The new thing is barely a new thing at all, and while Shape at least reconfigures the moral character of its monster to change the images it loves slightly, on the worse side of the nostalgia-pastiche epidemic are hollow, colorless Lion Kings and Beauty and the Beasts.
Somewhere in the middle of those extremes is Us, the latest from Jordan Peele, hot off of his zeitgeist-defining Get Out. Peele, content to make a good-looking, trashy horror slasher akin to his beloved Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, mostly delivers on the cheap thrills he’s going for. Unfortunately, Us suffers when it leans into pastiche, struggling as an overall piece of horror due to its self-aware reliance on the aesthetics of 70s and 80s horror—the creepy choral music, the wide-shots and slow zooms of The Shining, the 10-minute split diopter shot that juts out in the climax, etc. Peele comes from a background in satire, and while Us thrillingly evades easy satirical targets for a subtler weaving of real-world issues into a horror narrative, it can’t help but feel like it’s wearing the aesthetics of the horror genre like a grinning mask. This results in a patchwork of a film that can’t quite muster a sense of terror because it has calcified around too-recognizable modes of horror filmmaking. Us isn’t smug about its recall of older movies in the way that something like the Force Awakens is (Peele is no J.J. Abrams, thankfully); it’s reverent. Peele’s film feels like a good-enough entry into the horror genre, but one too indebted and hypertextual to stand out. Its overriding formal construction feels safe, and if a horror film feels safe, something’s wrong.
Still: the good, and there is good here. There’s been a lot (like, a lot a lot) written about what Us means, and how it must have a special, intrinsically radical, symbolic idea of black people and Trump and whiteness and… something. But the great, the truly great, thing about Us is that it is a work of competent genre fiction starring a mostly-black cast and featuring Lupita Nyong’o as its headliner, and the black family in its center is allowed to just be regular, and the film is allowed to be regular. Instead of trying to one-up Get Out, Us is content to be its own thing. The horror isn’t derived from some deep-seated societal ill but a simpler, character-based psychological fear, allowing its ensemble to be individuals, not archetypes or pawns in an egregious moral lesson about racism or capitalism or whatever. The family is not made up of slaves, or magical aids to white people, or made to endure severe, violent societal oppression, or made to instruct a white Italian stereotype in the ways of Not Being Racist Anymore. They get to exist, as regular people, running from monsters. And that’s cool.
Peele’s Academy-Award winning writing on Get Out proves here to be no fluke, bolstering the film with the quickly-established familial dynamic of its four protagonists. Worried, preoccupied matriarch Adelaide Wilson (Nyong’o, fantastic in a role that is worth her considerable talents, finally), goofy dad Gabe (Winston Duke, hilarious), track star Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and the quiet, eerily perceptive Jason (Evan Alex) all bounce off each other immediately, setting a solid rapport that is later creepily twisted with the introduction of the doppelganger-family. For most of its runtime, Us excels in its structure as it slowly teases out the motivations of its monsters- after the first 40 minutes or so, the film is so densely laid with twists and turns that I’m doing my best here not to give anything away. This initial patience makes the last two or three major reveals, one of which is communicated in a lengthy, tired villain monologue, feel all the more abrasive and disappointing. Peele’s skill as a writer lies primarily in his understanding of characters and humor, but the structural issues of the climax are a bit more noticeable here than they should be.
But is it scary? Yes it is – some of the time. When Peele really wants to land a specific creepy encounter between human and inhuman double, he really lands it. The set-pieces are clever and elegant in their simplicity—the way the family’s door is used to block much of what can be seen in the frame during the doppelgangers’ arrival at their doorstep; the use of a boat and, later, a car, to constrict the space between man and monster. These instances are underscored by Peele’s well-documented sense of humor (Tim Heidecker is in this movie, after all), which places Us pretty firmly in the horror-comedy genre, and it functions remarkably well in both genres- some of the time. Regrettably, there is little overall tension holding the film together, and while it strains to establish unease in its calmer, opening moments, it can’t quite sustain it over long stretches of time. Similarly, the goofiness of the final few twists does a lot to fully untether the piece from a more tactile sense of dread.
While Us is too caught up in other films’ aesthetic principles (a mark that can be held against a lot of modern horror films, to be clear), its sense of humor and fulfilled desire to illicit cheap, but smartly designed, scares, elevates the film significantly, and establishes Peele anew as a reliable, intelligent filmmaker.
CAMERON FAIRCHILD | The Force Awakens was fine | KXSU Arts Reporter