Saturday, March 23, 2019

Mirror Mirror: US

Get Out was a brilliant directorial debut for writer/performer Jordan Peele, moving behind the camera after a great career in sketch comedy. It was an engaging entertainment: a horror movie with a deep sociopolitical engagement that was somehow both the driver of its premise and its source of laughs that catch in the throat. It was deadly serious, but worn lightly, with every setup pleasingly paid off. Now here’s Peele’s follow-up: Us. Unlike his first feature, this fright show is tantalizingly unresolved, dramatically ambiguous where the other was crystal clear, and with a slowly developing thematic conceit where the other proceeded plainly declaiming its theses. But that doesn’t mean the plot is a puzzle to be solved. The exact point its high concept can no longer be explained is the very point the movie leaps into the purely metaphoric as a troubled and unsettled vision of both the dark reflections of ourselves we can no longer ignore lurking underneath our society, and of the depraved deprivation that makes comfortable upper- and middle-class lives possible. The puncturing of those boundaries is the point: how unsettling, frightening, and destabilizing it is to confront this darkness when it can no longer be ignored. 

We start in 1986, where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz boardwalk, moseys into a funhouse that suffers a power outage and, stumbling in the dark, meets another little girl who looks exactly like her. Cutting on this moment of bewildered fright, Peele takes us — after a mesmerizingly simple opening credits sequence — to the present day, where this distant childhood trauma exists in the grown woman (Lupita Nyong’o) only as a faded dark cloud. It’s kicked up by her vacationing family — sweet dope husband (Winston Duke), teen daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph), young son (Evan Alex) — heading to a Santa Cruz beach house. The place carries ominous associations for her, especially as her loved ones convince her to meet friends (a hilariously sniping shallow family played by Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, and Cali and Noelle Sheldon) at the very beach and boardwalk that was the site of her doppelgänger sighting. Eventually her unease that underpins the warmly funny familial hangout scenes is proven correct when, that night, a family of doppelgängers stand silent, dramatically backlit, at the end of their driveway. (At this point, our four leads develop remarkable, distinctive doubled performances, as gifted and eerie and convincing as you’re ever likely to see.) As the movie slinks into scary home-invasion, slasher-film machinations expertly, chilling staged, these mysterious characters — looking malnourished and eerily unkempt, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding sharp scissors — move with precise, eerie, controlled movements. They communicate with guttural howls. It put me in mind of the 1896 Paul Laurence Dunbar poem "We Wear the Mask": "This debt we pay to human guile;/With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/And mouth with myriad subtleties."

The frightening, violent doubles reflect their better selves as if in a funhouse mirror. This is what our main characters would be if their comfortable lives were instead ones of neglect and pain; they've come to take their place. It’s scary stuff, potent to find the seemingly unstoppable forces of your destruction look just like you. Peele escalates the tension with an expert eye and razor-sharp script, becoming a litany of suspense and violence (a shame it’s a stretch to say it’s nearly a jeremiad to Get Out’s parable?) that plays off the character dynamics we so thoroughly learn and enjoy in the opening setup. (This is also the welcome wellspring of perfectly timed and executed comic relief.) The payoff is to deepen the characters through action as the film grows complicated, not through twists, although it has a few, but through challenging our assumptions and double-knotting the thematic concerns until it reflects a host of destabilizing questions. To discuss further the implications of its startling, evocative, resonant images would be to spoil the surprise and the fun. Let me just say this is an enormously entertaining, precisely controlled film. It builds, one expertly crafted sequence after another with nary a wasted image or line, until it becomes a complicated, richly developed, long-lingering jolt. At what cost do we survive? What will we do to get it? And what does it mean for us to deserve that survival? It leaves us with an expansive, haunting final image not unlike Dunbar's poem drew to a close saying, "We sing, but oh the clay is vile/Beneath our feet, and long the mile;/But let the world dream otherwise..."

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