Us Makes America the Villain

Between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five years-old I witnessed what they would call the 11:11 “phenomenon.” Essentially, I saw a three or four-number combination of 1 in all walks of life. I saw it on television, often the last four of a Crash Bandicoot lawyer’s telephone number. I saw it during lunch time, the split-second moment a microwave hit that magic number. Most of all, I saw it on a clock, at least once a day every day. The paranoid and pretty rad among us consider this phenomenon many things: good luck, a sign from God, a glitch in the Matrix, a pang of the end times, or even a calling to those chosen to effect change and save the world from itself. Jordan Peele must have been a witness himself or simply heard about it and did his research, because Us is littered with references to this numeral phenomenon and the conspiracy theories that have sprung of it. More traditional horror than Get Out, and a much better film too, Us gets hung up on making a big statement, but ends up making a great horror film regardless.

This might be sacrilegious to those devoted: Get Out is a good film, one whose merits lay more in writing than in directing. Silly folks label it a thriller, denying it “horror” status for reasons I don’t care to discuss because that discussion is moot. Even if it’s not a horror film in concept, Get Out is definitely a horror film in execution. Therefore, I knocked it for not being scary enough. With Us, Peele is firing on all scary-movie cylinders, and doing so with a wider array of tools at his disposal, chief of all confidence. In the span of just two films he’s grown leaps and bounds as a filmmaker, doubling down on that shrewd, cunning humor and expanding on his penchant for wicked iconography. If there’s one thing every future horror classic needs, it’s iconography. Indelible, iconic images are nearly as important as everything else. And God, what everything else. Gabe (Winston Duke) and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and their two children make up your average middle-class American family. Duke is on a rocket ship to the stars and Nyong’o is officially one of the finest actresses of her generation. Her dual performances as two mama bears possessed are surefire proof the Oscar was no fluke. On vacation with their affluent white buddies the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their teenage daughters, it’s almost your typical hunky-dory set-up before the shit hits the fan…were it not for Nyong’o’s Adelaide. Since arriving she’s been reliving a childhood incident that traumatized her, and whether exploring that trauma or recollecting and subverting Reagan-era iconography (there it is again), it’s clear Peele is asking us to remember America’s sins.

Make no mistake though, Us is not about race. Us is about all of us. Get it? While the end message is somewhat obvious and couched in a ridiculous ending, the end point of it all doesn’t matter so much as how he gets there, the yarn of it all. Peele is delving into America’s contradictions and duality as a country, the great binary, our capacity to be good whilst ignoring and fearing the other, from the poor and underprivileged to those foreign to us. And he’s somehow doing it while throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us, including bunnies. Universal’s marketing team has done an excellent job crafting exciting trailers without spoiling the film’s secrets or much of its plot, so I can’t go into much detail less I give up the goose on just what is transpiring when the Wilson family doppelgangers show up with scissors and a kill-on for their “tethered.” Suffice to say, they’re not happy with how they’ve been treated and they’re here to change the world. When do they show up, Us kicks into high gear, containing more than a handful of moments designed for audience participation, the kind of stand-up-and-cheer shit built for horror audiences. This is particularly the case when the action moves to the Tyler family beach house, a twenty-minute sequence of shocking images, serious comedy, and killer tunes. From pillar to post the Tyler house battle between “good” and “evil” is a filmmaking tour de force.

But what about 11:11? Is it a red herring or an integral part of the yarn, something to parse? So goes the phenomenon itself, and world I suppose. Once Peele’s ambitious, apocalyptic vision comes to fruition, the numeric symbol takes on a special meaning to those of us who have entertained or at least read about the dozens of theories associated with it. It’s kinda cool knowing the next great filmmaker was inspired by something that creeped you the hell out for so many years, as it did me. From Haneke to Serling, the inspirations are many, and through it all the former comedian has produced an inarguable horror film of great conviction and originality. It’s all so fresh in spite of any borrowing. Though his message is clear as day, his tactics are dark as night, with so much to unpack scene to scene in terms of theme, metaphor, and a thoroughly unsettling fiction of American history. Us is not overtly political, and yet walking out I couldn’t help thinking about our country’s two halves, and our unending ability to blame the other half for all the evil in the world. It’s not them, it’s all of us.

Grade: A-

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