I think I have mentioned in the past the curious relationship between comedy and horror as genres, and the peculiar way in which they reflect each other. A bad comedy film can be one of the most horrible experiences imaginable; few things are more laughable than a bad horror movie. It seems to me that they are also quite unforgiving genres to work in: whether or not a drama or action movie really works is to some extent subjective, but it's much easier to tell with the two in question – unless it makes you laugh, a comedy's not working. Unless it's making you scared (or at least uneasy in your seat) the same is true of a horror movie.
Perhaps this has something to do with why Jordan Peele, until a few years ago really best known as a comedian, has suddenly managed to establish himself as a sort of horror-weird fiction impressario in the American media. Mostly this has been off the back of Get Out, a movie which I have to confess impressed me less than many other people. As a result of that movie's success Peele has been handed the arguably poisoned chalice of the curatorship of The Twilight Zone (one assumes that some day people will eventually figure out that it's not 1960 any more, but it clearly hasn't happened yet), and seems to have been given absolute carte blanche with his new movie, Us.
The new film concerns a nice, affluent American family who as things get under way are heading to their holiday home near Santa Cruz. The father (Winston Duke) is looking forward to the break, his wife (Lupita Nyong'o) seems to be troubled by an odd sense of foreboding. Their kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) don't seem to have particularly strong feelings either way.
Well, the holiday proceeds along the lines you would expect: father goofs about, mother worries, the kids annoy each other and their parents. But as the audience is already starting to realise that Nyong'o's character had a (to put it mildly) traumatic experience at this same resort as a child, all this is to be expected.
What comes a little out of the blue, if you haven't seen any of the publicity for this film at least, is the appearance in the driveway one night of another family, all clad in identical red jumpsuits and wielding fearsome-looking pairs of scissors. Soon they find themselves under siege from what seem to be their own bestial doppelgangers…
Well, you may be thinking, that sounds like an interesting premise for a horror movie, to which my response is: well, ye-es, as the kernel of an idea it has its merits, the real challenge lies in expanding it to form the basis of a whole 90 minute movie (Us, by the way, lasts a shade under two hours), especially one with a bit of heft and proper subtext to it. That was really my issue with Get Out: a nicely made film, and I got the point and most of the references, but what was it actually about? What was the central metaphor? I have never seen an explanation that struck me as especially convincing.
On the other hand, it is relatively straightforward to work out the train of thought which led to Us being made. One imagines Jordan Peele in a room with big film industry types, being clapped on the back and given cigars, as is only proper when your film has just made back about fifty-seven times its admittedly modest budget, as well as doing unexpectedly well at the Oscars. So, they say, toying idly with the handle of a huge valise full of money, we loved the last one. Got any other ideas? Peele thinks desperately. Well, he says, I had this kind of scary dream last week… Terrific! cry the backers. Here's $20 million. Can't wait to see it.
Us does has that sense of a movie which Peele has made primarily because someone wanted Peele to make a movie: if the film has a burning message, or is even about something in particular, it is not readily apparent. The opening segment of the film sets up a fairly ominous atmosphere quite effectively, and the sequence of the family being terrorised by their doubles also contains some quite effective material.
But then, unexpectedly, this part of the film ends, and I for one was left scratching my head: it's made pretty clear from the start that there's something else going on here, and due to be paid off before the credits roll, but it's impossible to guess what that it is. This is largely, I would say, because the film becomes increasingly incoherent as it goes on, with the narrative proceeding in a series of startling and unpredictable leaps rather than having any real logical progression to it.
This isn't immediately apparent, of course, and I did initially try to decipher what the inner meaning of Us might be: the title obviously serves double-duty as US, and at one point, when asked who they are, one of the killer duplicates responds ‘Americans'. But if there is a particular point Peele is trying to make, whether about racial, social or economic unease, it is by no means readily discernible.
However, this is not to say that watching Us is a frustrating or unsatisfactory experience: if nothing else, the nature of the film is such that, en route to the bus stop, Olinka and I had a very animated discussion of what the hell it was we'd just seen, much more than most of the films of our recent experience. I did enjoy the audacity of the film very much; once one accepts the way that the latter stages of the film in particular have the fractured logic of an escalating nightmare, there is a lot to enjoy here. The performances from the main quartet are also excellent, particularly Lupita Nyong'o. It is not what I would honestly call a genuinely scary film, but it is an engaging and entertaining one, with some nicely-handled moments of black comedy in the latter stages and also some impressive set pieces.
But in the end, does it really mean anything beyond a series of superficially scary images and unsettling moments? I tend to think not. This is the horror movie as a theme park ride, something to make you go whooo! while you're watching it, not to give you something to dwell upon (much) once it's over. This isn't really my preferred flavour of horror film, but I was still quite impressed by elements of Us, and I think I did enjoy it more than Get Out (others may disagree). I still don't think he's the new Rod Serling, but I'll be interested to see what Jordan Peele does next.
Also This Week...
…The White Crow, in which Ralph Fiennes gets in touch with his Russian side again, telling the story of Rudolf Nureyev's struggle with the Soviet system and his eventual defection to the west. Yuks all round! Well, it's not actually as glum as all that, being actually a well-written, well-performed drama with things to offer viewers who aren't necessarily ballet snobs. A bit overlong, perhaps, and the chopped-up chronology can be confusing, but the scenes of the defection are gripping. On the whole this is quite rewarding – not perhaps the definitive Rudolf, but near enough.