The Family Unfriendly Carnival that is Jordan Peele's Us
By Sarah Jasem
Us, directed by Jordan Peele, is set in a beach side, middle class, barbeque roasting, dad-joke toting, Santa Cruz holiday. One of the families on holiday consists of the matriarch Adelaide, played (and won) by Lupita Nyong’o, the lovable idiot father Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two gen z kids. Their family friends are Kitty Tyler (Elizabeth Moss), her husband and their children, who bring a low fat diet of free range country club and cultural appropriation to the seaside picnics.
Other than a normal middle-class family holiday, Alexa the AIhas been replaced by the more pretentious Ophelia, and red contortions with scissors creep out of the shadows and into the sun-kissed light to kill the families and guess what? They look just like them. Rather than a meet-cute parent trap type situation, this time, crawling out of the cracks of the darkness into the beach licked sunshine, they are the freakiest things I have ever seen in my life. They beg the question, ‘What if the enemy looked just like us?’
Except that curdling horror movie smile you catch yourself doing in the mirror out of sheer subversiveness to normality? Oh, that’s just their face! And don’t even get me started on what they sound like, especially Lupita as her doppelgänger Red. I’m still trying to forget.
If Jordan Peele’s ambition was to confuse, dazzle and obliterate my mind of any ego-soothing and compartmentalising intellectual rendering, then Jordan Peele succeeded. When it was time for the inevitable opinion match after the end, I ended up feeling terrified to even huckle down with my film studies student friends (the best opponents to beat in a pretentious opinion battle!) It ended quickly with‘ There’s no me and you, there’s us. We’re both right. I don’t want to die’.
I had a little tattered notebook which I quietly scribbled in when watching the film. The other hand was over my mouth the entire time to quell my audible gasping. Really, I needn’t have written anything but:
Conspiracy Theories for Later
I won’t talk about them here, you’ll find the internet is riddled with them. What I will say though, is that every time you thought the film was one thing, it defied you and became another, then another and another. It’s a horror movie set in a carnival. What did I expect? It is like being on a roller coaster ride with all of the aspects of a carnival meshed into it inappropriately. As you’re edging towards the steep tracks and you can see the robotic bend leading to the dreaded fall, Winston Duke’s dad character comes to dab at you on the precipice and offers you some candy. The laughter offered as candy relief became excessive to the point where some members of the audience politely declined and watched with dread. Some people didn’t mind and could not stop chuckling. There’s a reason Get Out (2017) was nominated in the comedy category for the academy awards last year, and the more frequent comedy this time feels like a subtle nod to the inappropriateness of its labelling then. But also, Peele is just funny.
Initially, going into this movie and coming out, there’s a feeling of what and where is the racial message? WHERE IS IT GODDAMMIT??
It’s going to be harder to find it than in Get Out. That’s the burden of representation that we put on successful creators to represent their minority group, isn’t it? But ‘tell me how you’re victimised thoughh! I’m listening!’ is in some ways, especially when palatable and understood by a mainstream privileged audience, almost another version of the victim minority story that we just love to see, the 21st century slave film‘s more woke sibling. Trying to pick needles of Moonlight (2016) references (the beach has an ocean?), watching TV (marginalisation of black people in the media from Get Out?), visual symbolism dealing with the civil rights movement and incarceration, out of the hay stack that is Us is difficult.
Not that it’s not there. Recurring visual motifs that link up with the writing are there for the good storytelling. It’s just this time, it’s less spoon-fed. One of Get Out’s legacies, is the liberal ponce of the audience line: ‘I’m not blah blah racist, I’ve watched Get Out three times.’ This phenomenon of ‘woke’ performativity can’t carry in the statement, ‘I’ve watched Us three times,’ because honestly, I doubt anyone who watches this movie three times will figure out what is going on.
The horror in this film feels pronounced, making it a more solid and powerful member of the genre. Get Out’s horror was palatable for even the most horror hating audience. The horror felt more like capturable (and therefore, memeable) moments. Us is more terrifically horrific. The classic things that give you chills- the weird whispering incantations and the random occasional jarring use of the violin- aren’t sown randomly throughout the film but seared into its foundation.
Us plays with the idea of the victim because you sometimes question why you are rooting for people making such bad decisions in the face of danger, arguing about whose driving whilst being CHASED for example. The film is apocalyptic, horrifying, funny and straight up bizarre. Rather than puzzle films where you can trace things back and have definite answers to fulfil your gorgeous table top decoration, things often don’t add up and get swept in the hazy emotive experience that is rooting for someone’s survival, and almost our own. The pieces of the puzzle can be looked for in minute shards of the entire cast’s spectacular performance as themselves and their others. This notably includes Shahadi Wright Joseph and and Evan Alex (the Wilson family children, Zora and Jason Wilson) and Elizabeth Moss, who should have had more screen time.
The twists can make the heightened emotive experience that you feel in that moment become just that- a moment. The lack of definition and craziness of it all makes you come off the seat disoriented, thinking why did I just do that to myself? Or you go again and again and again. Sometimes the best rides are the ones you get lost on. Some hate disorienting rides. I personally love them. Don’t eat something heavy, take a pill, try your best and see how it goes.
If you go aboard and buckle up, you’ll see the conductor at this crazy carnival, and let me tell you now. If I got anything from this film, it’s that he’s on some crazy class A for auteur shit with less to prove.