Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: once upon a time in 2002 I once spent most of a museum walk expounding at length on how virtually every piece of art in front of me, no matter how abstract or realistic or kitschy or modern, could in some way be deconstructed into a metaphor for the Duality of Man. It’s not hard. Take a thing, figure out a way to chop it into two warring halves like you’re Karnak of the Inhumans teaching a philosophy class, and presto. You’ve just written some tenth-grader’s literature report. It was fun till I began annoying myself and possibly our friends.
Leave it to Jordan Peele to follow up his Best Picture nominee Get Out with an unofficial adaptation of my blathering seventeen years later as the raging box office smash Us. It’s about time someone better than me did this.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Black Panther costars Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke reunite as Adelaide and Gabe, a loving married couple taking their two kids on vacation to Santa Cruz. Things are uneasy at first because Adelaide has not-so-warm memories of a traumatic childhood experience at the very same beach where they’ve wound up. She manages to keep her cool for what should be a fun day in the sun, followed by a lazy evening in their summer home.
Then their evil twins arrive. They’re played by the same actors in red MST3K jumpsuits, each of them bearing wild-eyed stares, long scissors, voices gravely gravelly from disuse, intangible yet hardwired connections to their analogs, and a twinkling of imminent violence in their eyes. As the kid intones in the trailer, the very enemy who stands before them and threatens grievous bodily harm…”It’s US.”
Which, in an oddly reflexive twist, I suppose makes Our Heroes “THEM”.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Nyongo’s parents in her flashbacks are Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Black Manta from Aquaman) and Anna Diop (Starfire from DC’s streaming Titans). Also on a vacation that’s about to be ruined are a shallow couple played by Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Handmaid’s Tale) and Tim Heidecker (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!).
Writer/director Peele himself is easy to miss as a certain kind of narrator. No, not Rod Serling.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? If you’ve never noticed symbolism in movies at any point in your life, Us is the perfect training course as long as you can handle the bloodletting that comes with it. Our fantastic foursome and their doppelgänger quartet are the tip of the iceberg in terms of Things That Come in Twos. On the way home my son and I had fun brainstorming how many pairs and dichotomies we spotted. I think my favorite was the contrasting use of radios. One family uses it to listens to the oldies and bond on car trips; another richer, shallower family shouts orders to a virtual assistant named Ophelia, which is basically radio turned indentured servant. Second-favorite was those edgy scissors, two nearly identical halves inextricably bolted together. They’re also integral to a paper-doll metaphor that I thought would come up in the film a lot sooner than it did.
On the other hand, fans of VH1’s We Love the ’80s will super-love that time America had its own vivid paper-doll visual in that forgotten classic moment in fundraising history, Hands Across America, in which people nationwide pretended they were linked hand-in-hand, voluntarily tying themselves together. It’s sort of a plot point here.
In a similar vein (no bloodied pun intended), the haunting image of the four of US looms large not only as a creepy unit, but as a collective of four ones standing in unison. That recurring motif pops up in a street preacher’s favorite verse (Jeremiah 11:11, foreshadowing the apocalypse), on clocks, and in TV baseball scores. I didn’t notice a picture of four tally marks anywhere, but I could’ve overlooked it. Also, in binary numbers, “1111” equals 15, so I’ll have to look for more fifteens if/when I see it again.
And there are rabbits, George. And so, so many portentous reflections. Us faces more symbolic mirrors than you can shake a copy of The Scarlet Letter at.
But the very stuff of a thousand future thesis papers finds its crux when US and Them sit down, captors and captives in one room, and sort out their exposition, shocking both for its described chain of events and for explaining nearly the entire movie in a single scene not even halfway through. But the most intriguing tidbit comes when Our Heroes ask the critical question of “Who ARE you people?” In a simpler movie, the creepy response would be something like “We’re human just like you!” or “We just want to be loved!” or dead silence or hideous cackling or copious stabbing.
The actual response from Evil Lupita is far more perplexing in its implications: “We’re Americans!”
Now go thinkpiece yourselves into a tizzy, English majors.
Nitpicking? For its first ninety minutes Us is at least as effective as Get Out as a slick, gripping horror story. The last half-hour is where the viewer will either stay aboard or get flung off the ride as it shifts gears into sci-fi, not unlike assorted Twilight Zone episodes of yore. But somehow Peele begins to overexplain and underexplain at the same time. Creepy things get a little less creepy when you start conducting a grand tour of their underlying mechanisms. Metaphors may get a little too flexible if you bury the clues too deeply — or refuse to add clues and instead let the viewer bridge the gaps with their own theories and prejudices and logical lapses. Ambiguity can be fun, especially for sparking debates on the ride home and/or on the internet later, but a lot of those final minutes kept begging so many “how” questions that I was too distracted to enjoy the vagueness. And the more you ask “Why is…” or “How does…” you can imagine Peele shouting, “The answer is SHUT UP! IT’S AN ALLEGORY!”
To make matters worse for myself, I guessed the film’s final twist ten minutes in. I’ve seen it done before in a TV episode or two. Honestly, I was surprised it wasn’t addressed sooner.
So what’s to like? Ultimately Get Out was streets ahead, and I would’ve voted for it three times if I could’ve. But Us had a major advantage: the theatrical experience itself.
My son and I caught Us at a packed nighttime showing, all the seats full and the audience extremely engaged. They shouted advice and annoyed questions at characters whenever they were clearly doing a dumb thing. They yelped and jumped in all the right places. They clammed up whenever a scene fell deathly silent, or whenever Bizarro-Lupita gave another off-her-rocker soliloquy. And they roared at the funnier bits, which were countless. None of these reactions were unintentional or at the movie’s expense. As with Get Out, Peele knows how to juggle frights and hilarity with a masterful deftness, and (courtesy of editor Nicholas Monsour) times the gasps and the giggles in exactly the right order and lengths for maximum impact. Folks mocked when they were supposed to mock.
Up until that final act began dividing folks back into camps, our audience found itself synchronizing with the beats, an entirely different kind of paper doll chain. Except for one guy in the row ahead of us who just had to check his texts at one point. That guy gets the scissors.
Credit definitely also goes to the entire main cast. The two kids, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, show they’ve learned how to look sufficiently terrorized, how to deal with an annoying sibling, how to hold their own in a fight scene, and, as their twisted halves, how to make Children of the Corn and Village of the Damned look about as harmful as Barney the Dinosaur’s friends. Established pro Elizabeth Moss, as the vain rich lady who obviously doesn’t stand a chance of surviving the chaos, is given her own opportunities to run wild and beyond.
I took it as given that Nyong’o and Duke would rule, and I was happy to be right, though Nyong’o has her dual roles carrying more of the film’s overall weight, shouldering each side of herself with pride and intensity, both of them dueling over the right to be called Scariest Person in This Movie. By the end I really couldn’t decide which one scared me more: Overprotective Leader Mom or Dark Overprotective Leader Mom. By the end, the difference was paper-thin.
Chalk it up to the eternal internal battle that is the Duality of Woman.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Us end credits, but thanks to the presence of Hands Across America — which I had to explain to my son, who’d never heard of it and legitimately thought Peele was parodying “We Are the World” — all those historical callbacks necessitated a list of more sources for stock footage than your average Oscar-grubbing biopic.