It Takes Two to Terrorize
By Michael S. Goldberger
Point of disclosure: Save for classics like “Dracula” (1931) and “Frankenstein” (1931), I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to horror films. I’m not simply afraid of them, but rather, in the parlance of childhood, ‘a-scared’ of them. That is, until now. Gripping my armrests in anticipation of a body-elevating jolt whilst viewing film auteur Jordan Peale’s “Us,” his unconnected follow-up to the highly praised “Get Out” (2017), the epiphany dawned on me. Having lived through the last two years of the real-life horror that has masqueraded as American politics, I am immunized. Any fiction purporting to be horror pales in comparison to what the genuine article bodes.
I’d have just as soon sailed along on the River Styx of frightening movie entrees, cowering in the dark with each film I opted to review. But I am now from innocence tossed, legitimately terrified. You may be familiar with the hackneyed but all the same ominous scene I’ve been relegated to play out these recent months. I see the monster, but despite all my frantic screaming about his treacherous presence, most of the burghers in the village pay no attention …some of them even trying to censure my exhortations: “He’s blinkin’ blimey crazy, he is.”
So, while I sat there in anticipation of involuntary launch, I appreciated the finely skilled dabs and streaks of the cinematic art with which Mr. Peale is so obviously gifted. But I saw the fiction for what it ultimately was…a baby rattle that might temporarily distract me from my discomfort. All of which suggested that the only thing left for me to do was to turn my attention to the multifarious metaphors Peale was actually crafting, as opposed to the ones I concocted.
In short, there is much to munch on here if the basic fact of doppelgangers terrorizing the Wilson family as they attempt to enjoy their summer vacation isn’t entertainment enough for you. For starters, you’ll want to figure out from whence these Bizarro-type doubles emanated and, as the Wilsons oft plead in high-pitched fright, what exactly do they want?
Although the catastasis and wrap-up kind of explain it, I found said recap even more confounding and, worried that I might do myself harm, have finally stopped scratching my head over the matter. Besides, the wise path here is probably to just take the surface cataclysms as the chaff, the action to keep our hearts palpitating, while the headier, philosophical propounding is for us to theorize après theatre at the local diner with the Glucksterns. It’s their turn to pay. You offer to leave the tip.
Interestingly, and perhaps a slight sign of social improvement in the American landscape, Peale never calls conscious attention to the fact that the Wilsons, Adelaide and Gabe, and their children, Zora and Jason, are African-American. Rather, they are, apparent from their trappings, simply upper middle class. The one exception, which also informs that Gabe has been to college, is the Howard University sweatshirt he wears throughout the harrowing proceedings. However, while those of an analytical bent may read more or less into it than Peale himself intended, the symbolism of the plot’s two entities, one fulfilled, the other deprived, lends itself handily to a cornucopia of sociological conjecture.
That said, whether frightened or not by the often gruesome goings-on as the duplicates invade the Wilsons’s summer manse, we are soon put in the uncomfortable, bloodthirsty position of rooting for our previously happy family to kill the interlopers by any means possible. All thoughts of political correctness go flying out the window when it comes to movie demons. You’re free to hate, hate, hate as much as your blood pressure will allow.
But of course, muddled as the message may be, the parable at play here suggests that guilt for being a Have in a world teeming with Have-Nots is in order. Whether you can do something about it aside from being a human sacrifice is another matter. The visitants’ steady, petrifying encroachment, oblivious to all beseeching, seems hell-bent on revenge and not remediation.
Making all this illusoriness as real as your suspension of disbelief deems acceptable, Lupita Nyong’o earns a gold star as both Adelaide Wilson and Red, while Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson and Abraham is also commendable in his double duty stint. And, doing their fair share of representing the typical American family and its evil alter ego, both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are aces as the kids.
Granted, the “scare me, scare me” crowd may be disappointed by the dearth of old-fashioned, unremitting shocks to body and soul. But if one gives serious thought to this feature-length affirmation of cartoon pundit Walt Kelly’s theorem that we have met the enemy and he is “Us,” it’s probably the scariest prospect of all.
“Us,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Jordan Peale and stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Shahadi Wright Joseph. Running time: 116 minutes