Us review: A horror film with brains to burn
Also reviewed: Minding the Gap, The White Crow
The trouble with making a brilliant début feature film is what to do next. Jordan Peele's 2017 movie Get Out was universally adored, did serious business at the box office and won an Oscar for its screenplay. Though ostensibly a horror movie, it brilliantly satirised the state of American race relations. In the era of Trump it seemed razor sharp, archly relevant, an instant classic. Now how on earth do you follow that?
By doing something completely different, is Mr Peele's answer, because although Us expands on the doppelgänger theme implicit in Get Out, it's a bigger, bolder, weirder and more operatically creepy production. Jordan is a big Twilight Zone fan, and will shortly be fronting up a TV revival of the 1960s sci-fi series: Us embraces the classic show's off-kilter eeriness, and is based on a 1960 Twilight Zone episode called Mirror Image.
Young couple Gabe and Adelaide Winston (Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong'o) have retreated to their coastal Californian beach house for a break with their children Zora (Shadadi Wright) and Evan (Jason Wilson). Gabe's an affable, happy-go-lucky sort, but Adelaide is anxious, and something doesn't feel quite right. In a haunting prologue, we discover that when she was a child, Adelaide got lost in a seafront amusement park and wandered into a hall of mirrors, where she met a little girl who looked exactly like her.
She's never quite gotten over the experience, and has been afflicted ever since by a creeping sense of dread. With good reason, as it turns out, because as they're settling down one evening four shadowy figures appear in the driveway. They stand stock still, saying nothing, and when Gabe goes out to investigate, they attack him, then scatter, quickly infiltrating the house. And as a wounded Gabe retreats to join his family, they discover to their horror that the four intruders look exactly like them.
They seem different, though, ragged, feral, communicating through screeches, snorts and grunts. Only the woman talks, in a scratchy, pained voice that suggests she hasn't had occasion to speak in quite a while. The soliloquy she delivers is oblique but charged with menace: they've come from underground, and mean to usurp their sun-kissed counterparts.
Adelaide and the family manage to escape, but the doppelgängers follow. What's worse, it's an epidemic: when the family reach their friends Josh and Kitty (a dreadful, bitter, bickering pair hilariously played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss), they quickly realise they've already been replaced. All over the State and possibly the country, lookalikes are lurching from the depths to kill. And as she fights for her life, Adelaide finds untapped reserves of strength but is troubled by new and lurid flashbacks.
In Us, Jordan Peele proves once again that horror films don't have to be stupid. On the contrary, supernatural stories can be the perfect template for metaphors, allegory, big political themes. In Get Out, white America's inability to move beyond its fear and distaste for black people was the issue, but in Us, refreshingly, race is irrelevant. The Winstons are an American family that happens to be black, but their skin colour has nothing to do with their misfortune, which is universal.
Apart from having a tremendous amount of fun on a bigger canvas, what Mr Peele appears to be addressing here is iniquity, America's growing underclass, and the worrying idea that if you live well, you do so at someone else's expense. You could call them zombies, but the people from beneath might as easily be seen as the risen proletariat, and Us uses images from Adelaide's 1980s childhood to imply that the present rot set in with Reagan.
None of this, though, is conveyed in an obvious or heavy-handed manner, and could be blithely ignored by cinemagoers (God forgive them) in search of a good night out. Us is great fun, very funny, and uses a banging soundtrack to very skilful effect. It also looks great: Jordan Peele has upped his cinematic game since Get Out, and this film is very nicely directed for the most part, beautifully photographed. Maybe the plot does become a little grandiose late one, but it would be churlish to criticise that and not applaud Us's scope, and ambition.
And what a performance, or rather double performance, from Lupita Nyong'o, who shifts with wonderful ease between the nervy, intuitive Adelaide and her terrifying, dead-eyed doppleganger. At any other time of year, there'd be talk of Oscars.
Also releasing this week:
Minding the Gap
Bing Liu's grungy début feature is a remarkable, unusual film. Part documentary, part episodic reality drama, it starts slowly, even scrappily, before gathering an extraordinary cumulative power. Bing Liu grew up in Rockford, Illinois, a once-thriving industrial hub that has seen rapid decline in recent times. In his teenage years, Liu bonded with his two best friends, Keire Johnson and Zach Mulligan over a shared love of skateboarding. Liu began filming Keire and Zach as they ran their boards along Rockford's roads and sidewalks and mulled over what adult life might have to offer them. But for them skateboarding was no mere hobby - it was a means of escape. For as Liu's film slowly reveals, all three young men had unhappy home lives blighted by violent, bullying or absent fathers. And as it came time for them to become men, the question was would they do any better. Filmed over a number of years, Minding the Gap is many things at once: an ode to friendship, a lament for lost childhoods and a damning indictment of an increasingly iniquitous society.
The White Crow
On June 16th, 1961, Rudolf Nureyev walked up to two plain clothes policemen in Le Bourget Airport and announced that he wanted to defect. The 23-year-old dancer was on tour in the west with the Mariinsky Ballet, and had dazzled Parisian audiences with his bravura performances, but his enthusiasm for the French capital's nightlife had outraged his KGB handlers, and when it came time to go home, Rudy decided he'd had enough. That incident forms the climax of Ralph Fiennes' diligent and lovingly made biopic, which works backwards from Le Bourget to Nureyev's Siberian childhood and his struggles to get to the top. Born on a train, raised in poverty, Rudolf (Oleg Ivenko) battles his way into the elite Vaganova Academy in Saint Petersburg, where the kindly, intuitive ballet master Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes) takes him under his wing. Screenwriter David Hare handles the story very well, and Oleg Ivenko is a good enough dancer to convince as Nureyev in the performance sequences. It's a fine, soulful film.