Review: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a different kind of classic

Illustration+by+Sarah+Hofstedt
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Review: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a different kind of classic

Illustration by Sarah Hofstedt

Illustration by Sarah Hofstedt

Illustration by Sarah Hofstedt

Illustration by Sarah Hofstedt

Lucy Conrad

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There is a term in modern film journalism that has been circulating for years, becoming prominent after the overnight success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” called “elevated horror.” The idea is that horror films don’t normally have any artistic merit besides a few thrills, and films like “Get Out” or “Hereditary” use the trappings of the genre to create “real” art and thus they are not “real” horror movies.

In my eyes, this term simply points out a longstanding oversight in film writing. There has always been artistry and meaning in horror. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” can be interpreted as the author’s fear of motherhood, and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” can be read as being about the everyday horrors and trauma facing young women in America.

“Get Out” is obviously a masterpiece, but just because its themes are more relevant and overt compared to other soulless mass-produced studio genre fare doesn’t mean the genre should be taken down to lift a handful of films up.

It appears Jordan Peele feels the same way, as it would be incredibly difficult to see his new film, “Us,” as anything but horror. If “Get Out” is fueled by old episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and Hitchcockian suspense, “Us” is, by all means, a product of the 1980s.

The film’s opening features call outs to “The Goonies,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “C.H.U.D.,” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video among other films, and it is apparent that these are influences on Peele’s new work.

“Us” is all at once a family comedy, a home invasion thriller, a creature feature and a slasher flick, co-opting the appeal of these classics so it can instantly become one itself. But just because its influences are clear doesn’t mean this isn’t a wildly original script, and it will take viewers in more than one unexpected direction.

The actual story may have some issues, but these are easy to ignore when faced with the sheer adrenaline rush of this movie. I recommend going in blind so as opposed to a summary, I’ll paraphrase Peele himself: The film centers around a woman who returns with her family to the place where she experienced a horrible trauma when she was young, only to find that her trauma is still there –– with a family of its own.

Just because “Us” is meant to be consumed as straightforward horror does not mean it’s any less political than its predecessor. It just means that its undertones are subtler and open to further interpretation. There are clues to what Peele wants to say here. The first of which is the title itself, along with a chilling line uttered soon after the trauma’s on-screen arrival. There are references to both Reagan-era and current political administration, and the similarities between them.

The film’s main concept, revealed far into the film, brings with it a different meaning depending on who is watching. It is a condemnation of Americans fearing the Other, by way of examining protagonists and horror cinema audiences that fear the same. It also suggests looking within, analyzing the old saying that we are our own worst enemy. Over anything else, it is a film about a divided America and a film that asks us to consider another perspective before disregarding it.

The film’s other political act is the making a black, middle-class family the center of the film. While “Get Out” was revolutionary for how it addressed race in horror film, “Us” is revolutionary for a reason that is almost the opposite: that the race of the characters is almost never discussed in the film. That a family in a mainstream film can just be black for the sake of it. Black protagonists don’t have an arc centered around their race, and black antagonists aren’t villainized because of their race.

We get to see a black family be joyful and then terrified for a reason that has nothing to do with the color of their skin. It shifts the norms of a genre that often devalues black bodies. This film’s suspense comes from the fact that you are made to care deeply about this family.

“Us” is a film that’s going to be talked about for years, and it’s invigorating for a multitude of reasons. One of the reasons is its phenomenal technical aspects. The cinematography is vibrant but its colors are often faded, giving even more depth to a pattern of visuals centered on duality. Peele’s experience in comedy provides him with a unique particularity to his directorial style. He understands how to pack as much or as little detail into a scene as necessary, and he understands when to let an actor take center stage. Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance is breathtaking and worth an entire essay of its own.

The film is dense but decipherable, thrilling but fun, and an experience I highly recommend having at least twice. You’ll know why when you see it.

(4.5/5)