Monday, April 01, 2019

Us (2019)

For the third year in a row now an African-American movie has posted surprise breakout box office numbers early in the year. One was Black Panther and the other two are horror movies with extra sauce directed by Jordan Peele. If Get Out played a little safe first by going for laughs (Peele is still probably best known as a comic, after all), and then winding up the final third in all too familiar slasher style horror convention, Us is better, more ambitious, even more committed to its unique premises and piling on the conventions in layers. There are unmistakable racial glosses in both, but they are often more like recognizable universal elements contributing to the general anxiety. We're not that surprised, for example, when police are slow to respond to a 911 call from the family of four in Us (Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong'o, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex). And no, it doesn't matter that they are buppie middle class. In fact, what's more surprising is that there might actually be a reason other than racism for the slow response. Or at least, I know a reason was mentioned. But other things were mentioned that would make it seem unlikely. Us can get to be slow sledding at some points toward the end, encumbered by all its concept and hints of counter-concepts and a desire to impress. That might mean the movie is actually even better on another go. I don't know about that yet. But down on the level of the hoary old horror movie, it has plenty of good things going on, borrowing dread from classic themes of horror, notably the always strangely unnerving doppelganger threat, mixing them shrewdly with not-yet-so-classic themes of home invasion movies like Funny Games (1997 version), The Last House on the Left (2010 version), or The Strangers (2008), along with some seasonings of body horror and paranoia from The Brood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A big neon sign early in the movie points to C.H.U.D. and there's a hazy sort of kidnapping in there too, as backstory. At a carnival. Plus '80s nostalgia. It finally all sets up a mano a mano throwdown between the family that has spent the first 20 minutes of the movie charming us silly—Us is as good on middle-class complacency as the early scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—versus their strange counterparts in the restrained red jumpsuits, which may or may not be part of a worldwide plague, like the original George Romero zombies. But that's part of the concept and there for you to figure out with loved ones later over pie and coffee. There's only so much you can do with these kinds of mysterious what-is-the-universe-anyway kinds of things. Us does most of them and does them pretty well and it knows how to scare without shock cuts (though of course it has shock cuts). Everyone is good and N'yongo is amazing, especially in the red. See it.

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