Early in Quentin Tarantino’s career it was hard to tell what type of film-maker he’d turn out to be. His early films were so soaked in pop culture references, sly allusions and dialogue about comic book characters and the like, that the task of decoding what, if anything his films were about was a largely fruitless one. It could be argued that we still don’t know; we do know that he needs a more ruthless editor, but there seems to be little (if any) thematic consistency. Two films in to Jordan Peele’s career, we know rather more. His films so far seem equally replete with pop cultural references; there’s little sign of the ill discipline that has come to define Tarantino (though in Quentin’s defence, Pulp Fiction was just the right side of baggy. Just.); and whilst we can see the fingerprints of Tarantino in, for instance, Peele’s use of music, we can also see the larger themes he’s reaching for. It helps that Peele is sticking to the horror genre; but taking Peele’s calling card of Get Out and his second film Us together, it’s apparent that he may well be one of the key film-makers of the era. He may also, it seems, be the prophet our times need.
Whereas Get Out was clearly and obviously about race, Us could be about any number of things. Peele has been articulate about how this is in itself a breakthrough – a major film by a black film-maker with black leads that isn’t about race shows, he says, a development in the conversation. The way Us appears to light up like a forcefield whichever of a number of themes you bring near it could be a weakness, and lead to a game of decoding that causes viewers to lose the power of the film’s concerns; for me, that would be a mistake from the viewer rather than Peele, but I can see why it may be a problem.
Let’s be clear; Us is scary, funny, technically brilliant, stuffed with standout performances, and profound. Is it better than Get Out? Who knows. That seems a daft game to play. Like Get Out, you can decode any number of cultural and genre reference points; I’ll throw one in to the ring I haven’t seen mentioned (yet) – HG Wells’s ‘The Time Machine‘, the science-fiction book that more or less created the time travel sub-genre. The influence here isn’t in time travel; but rather, to me, in something hinted at in the film’s opening shot that becomes a central part of the film’s plot. I’ll say no more on that for fear of spoilers.
It’s an adrenaline ride, for sure. A home invasion movie, a doppelgänger movie, a family in crisis drama, a slyly satirical/comic take on and deconstruction of the American dream, consumerism, capitalism, celebrity charity drives (prefiguring the Insta-charity brigade); it touches too on animal testing. Like many horror movies it looks at the consequences of early trauma on later life, throwing in a dose of imposter syndrome for good measure.
For me it says most about privilege. During apartheid in South Africa, the governing party banned any art that would be deemed to subvert their rule. Sometimes they missed the point. Bright Blue’s song ‘Weeping’ snuck through, because it appeared to be a song about a man with noisy neighbours. It was, of course, a parable; a parable about the way white South Africa kept the rest of the country at bay. In the words of the song, in the quest for peace and order, the threat of the angry underclass was stifled. The mistake made was that what they thought was anger, wasn’t; it was weeping. But if the weeping remained unheard for too long, it may well turn to anger.
That’s the thematic territory that Us seems to me to tread. As the moneyed classes bury themselves in consumption and comfort, an underclass is increasingly alienated, and increasingly desperate. The underclass might be seen as angry; in fact they are weeping. But when the weeping is unheard, and instead patronised and then forced to continue to pay the price of the privileged’s comfortable life, we watch it eventually turn to blood-soaked, murderous anger.
It should go without saying that, controversies about accents notwithstanding, Lupita Nyong’o’s central performance is remarkable; each cast member who’s asked to play two versions of the same character is similarly terrific. Elisabeth Moss is superb in her supporting role, which does not give her enough to do (but in fairness, no film gives an actress of her remarkable talents enough to do). There are jump scares to rival most, but it’s the chilling, creeping dread and the final, head-scrambling twist that lives in your (sub) conscious for days after. It has what may be the bleakest final shot since Frank Darabont’s The Mist, made bearable by the film’s well-judged wit and laugh out loud tension-breaking.
As with Get Out, Peele is tackling one of our era’s most urgent issues, calling us to listen and act before it’s too late. Whilst churches squabble, politicians drown in self-interest and celebrity culture demands its tribute, Jordan Peele may well be the prophet our times urgently need. Maybe many won’t give credence to that, soaked as his horror stories are in blood and fear; but therein lies the challenge. Prophets rarely invite us to comfort.
Have we ears to hear?
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