When comparisons to Hitchcock or Serling are thrown your way as a filmmaker, many would think it’s an automatic blessing; that this must mean your career is destined to be iconic. Those names carry even more weight if you’ve suddenly acquired this praise because of your groundbreaking work in the horror and thriller genres. Yet any cinephile need look no further than the former prodigal son, M Night Shyamalan to realize sometimes that type of praise, can be a curse.
Jordan Peele however, doesn’t just embrace his destiny, he controls it.
What was clear at SxSW’s marquee opening of Peele’s Us, was that not only has Peele deservedly earned those comparisons, but he couldn’t be more modest during this success. Of course, this is merely a new kind of success for the writer/performer and now writer/director/producer. Even ignoring the success he had on MadTV or Key & Peele, his directorial debut Get Out was difficult to ignore for all the right reasons.
...but there’s more to that aforementioned curse.
Often, a lot of filmmakers will have sophomoric struggles. It becomes a proverbial dump truck of expectations loaded on top of them; how do they possibly live up to the success of their first blockbuster? How can they live up to the success?
Us most certainly breaks that curse. The reaction the trailer got was more than enough of an indication of how many people are looking forward to this film, but I can tell you from personal experience, and having seen it first hand, how insane people are over this movie. The team of young cinephiles and writers that was with me at this years’ festival waited seven hours in line for the screening, and not a single one of us felt like we wasted the day.
“…we are in a time when we fear the ‘other’, and I wanted to suggest maybe the monster we really need to look at, has our face” -Jordan Peele
Another curse some filmmakers can fall into is the fact that with their second film, assuming the first was successful, often comes a larger budget, and therefore the film can become too ambitious and lose focus. Think of the transition from Pitch Black to the Chronicles of Riddick; bigger doesn’t always mean better. While I might be in the minority in saying that Peele was very close to this, that doesn’t mean he’s lost his focus. Another aspect of this man’s success that became clear after hearing him speak, was that he possesses laser-like focus. His revealing of how he came up with the concept of this film is both chilling and inspirational.
The same intelligence that is clear in the man’s humor and in hearing him speak comes through in this film. It is wildly layered, and I chose that word very carefully. The entire experience of Us is a wild ride, but it is the unravelling of the socio-political commentary, the imagery and symbolism and cinematic allegories that make this film truly special.
At times, that ‘fun factor’ created small downfalls for the film. Unlike Get Out which kept me guessing, or fooled me a few times, I felt Us played it safe a little bit more. Specifically with the scares, I felt that I had seen many of them before or that I knew what was going to happen. However, that only affects one half of that balance, as the comedy was brilliant. Winston Duke, steals the show with his sarcastic and sometimes embarrassing Gabe, and creates one of my new favorite cinematic patriarchs. It’s moments and characters like this that helps make the world seem real, and in this case, makes us care about the family.
The entire cast, in fact, give captivating performances. (Actually, two; they each give two captivating performances). I couldn’t believe what the young actors Shahadi Wright Joesph and Evan Alex were capable of considering the dark nature of their ‘other halves’, but both pull off terrifying character studies and help to sell the fantastical nature of the film. Lupita Nyong’o as the lead and matriarch, Adelaide, had the lion’s share, not simply because she was the lead, or that she had two roles, but because much like Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar nominated role in Get Out, if it weren’t for Lupita’s captivating and grounded performance, this film could not work. Peele has depended on both his leads to carry the film and sell its’ premise, which is why you don’t need to question the logic of the concept, or any plot holes that come up; these talented actors convince you of every moment and the reality of Peele’s created worlds.
Us examines how we are our own worst enemy. In the director’s own words, how “we are in a time when we fear the ‘other’, and I wanted to suggest maybe the monster we really need to look at, has our face”. It’s not lost on this Canadian film fan that every time I write ‘Us’ I think ‘U.S.’, as in ‘United States’, and while we North Americans might share in a lot of our culture, Peele himself says the subtext is really about American fears, prejudices and attitudes.
The horror portion of the film ironically, is not the portion to watch, it’s what’s happening in between those scenes or what’s being discussed before them. How the characters are seemingly good people, but they all exhibit bad behavior; they’re materialistic, competitive, rude, even the family dynamic of attacking each others’ weaknesses I think shows those monsters are present, even if they’re not the ones animalistically murdering each other with scissors.
Which is why I think the Serling comparison is the most apt. I’ve heard Hitchcock’s name thrown around a little too much, and I think that takes away so much of the credit Peele’s writing deserves. Us is brilliant in almost everything it tries to pull off and I truly can’t wait to see it again and again. I would love to see Peele go a little smaller, much like Get Out for future projects, but since he’s so full of surprises, he may still hone his already amazing skills as a storyteller. Peele, much like Serling can deftly create a world of science fiction or horror that shines a dark light on… well… us.