horror movie review

Review: Jordan Peele’s ‘US’: horror on duality of the human condition

Article originally published at People’s World

“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” – Jeremiah 11:11

After watching writer, director, and producer Jordan Peele’s latest film, US, you may never look at bunnies, or your mirrored reflection, the same way again. The horror film makes its debut in theaters this weekend, following up on the success of Peele’s award winning documentary-like horror movie Get OutUS centers on a family who have their world thrown into chaos when a group of doppelgängers begins to terrorize them.

It’s a film that mixes heavy doses of symbolism, classic horror references, and innovative storytelling mechanisms for an end result of effective terror that will surely get viewers talking about it long afterwards. Although, most of that talk may be dominated by trying to figure out what a good amount of the story, and the themes within it, was trying to convey. The ambitious film leaves a great deal of mystery in its wake (for better or worse), while aiming high with a fresh take on horror.

Distributed by Universal Pictures, and produced by Monkeypaw Productions in collaboration with Blumhouse Productions, the film is written and directed by Peele himself. The movie stars Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther), Winston Duke (Black Panther), Shahadi Wright Joseph (The Lion King), and Evan Alex (Kidding) as the main family fighting for their survival against their evil doppelgängers. Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), Tim Heidecker (Ant-Man and the Wasp), Anna Diop (Titans), and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) also help to round out the cast. The main events of the story take place in the sunny California town of Santa Cruz. Peele has noted that the inspiration for the movie came from an episode of the classic American television anthology series The Twilight Zone, called “Mirror Image.” Peele is set to do a reboot of the series this year.

The episode of “Mirror Image” deals with a young woman, who is seemingly very put together, when her sanity is tested once she encounters her look alike, from another plane of existence, who is hellbent on replacing her. The theme of this episode is at the heart of US, but is only a starting point, as Peele expands the universe to create his own folklore that makes for an all-encompassing and mysterious setting.

The film has many great things going for it. At the heart of the movie is Nyongo’s  superb acting.  As the main character, Adelaide Wilson, Nyong’o puts on strong displays of fear, anxiety, strength, vulnerability, and even madness, that result in a truly haunting performance. There’s a subtle and believable chemistry between the main family that will have the audience invested in their plight and hoping for their survival.

Peele does a fine job as director in creating atmospheric horror that draws the viewer in with a false sense of security and normalcy, with hints of danger brimming underneath the surface. Through strong choices of color, movement, and music, the movie has a distinct style that incorporates classic horror themes, while simultaneously remixing them for a modern audience. At a little over two hours long the movie doesn’t feel as though it drags on. It moves at a pace that allows the viewer to get to know the characters and who they are, before taking us on a journey during which their world is ripped apart.

Another notable aspect of the film is the fact that a Black family is at the center of the story. Although there has been an increase in diversity in film over the years, there is still a long way to go in showcasing people of color, in particular Black people, in mainstream roles that aren’t mainly focused on their race alone. Peele does this effortlessly by presenting a modern family with normal lives. They have seemingly normal issues and an easy-going family dynamic.

Yet, the making of the family as Black is innovative and boundary pushing, simply because the role the Wilsons are allowed to take on, as the center focus, is often reserved for the “default” white characters in mainstream films. The narrative is centered on this Black family. They aren’t an afterthought, or the diversity quota fill for the movie.

There will be inevitable comparisons between US and Peele’s previous film Get Out. While Get Out focused on race and racism in an in-your-face kind of way through the use of horror, US doesn’t ignore race, but it doesn’t make it the central focus. The power in US when it comes to centering the Black experience, is that Blackness is on proud display throughout the film, but is done not in the vein of ‘otherness,’ as though the viewer is looking at something different from themselves, but rather that the terror that the Wilson family experiences is universal.

White isn’t used as the default portrayal of the human condition. US allows Black people to be fully realized characters outside of overused tropes.

There is heavy use of symbolism in the film. The use of bunnies, mirrors, biblical quotes (such as Jeremiah 11:11 which is referenced often throughout the movie), and even scissors, all clearly hold some deeper meaning below the surface. It makes for intriguing plot devices that go beyond jump scare tactics often employed in some movies belonging to the same genre. One could interpret even the doppelgängers themselves are symbolic of the other half of ourselves, of society in general, that stands in its own way of progress.

This is something that Peele has alluded to in interviews regarding the film, where he’s quoted as explaining, “We’re our own worst enemy, and that idea created this monster… I wanted to forge this new mythology that explored our duality and the duality of the characters.” The director achieves this forming of mythology, although the film does have a few drawbacks to it.

The main issue this reviewer has with the film is that within all the symbolism and great horror, some of the plot, or rather major plot points, get muddled or left unexplained. Some of the twists and turns, although exciting, may leave the viewer trying to figure out if there were plot holes, or if you simply missed something that was briefly touched upon. Elements of the story are alluded to that refer to a much bigger universe, but they aren’t delved into enough to give a completely satisfying explanation as to why certain things occur. The ambition of the storytelling resonates strongly,  but some of the marks are left unhit.

Then again, perhaps Peele leaving us with more questions than answers goes back to the ending narration of the episode of The Twilight Zone that inspired US in the first place. That being, “Obscure and metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomena. Reasons dredged out of the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained. Call it ‘parallel planes’ or just ‘insanity’. Whatever it is, you will find it in the Twilight Zone.”

Insert US in the place of The Twilight Zone in that quote, and you’d have a pretty good summary of what the movie will leave you feeling like. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Overall, US is an effective horror movie with a subtle commentary on society, of how we can both help and hinder ourselves – how we can bring about progress or complete destruction. It’s a chilling tale with people of color at the center, that will surely leave those who see the movie thinking about it long after the credits have rolled.

The trailer for US can be seen here.

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