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In Theaters: US (2019)

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US
(US - 2019)

Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon, Madison Curry, Ashley McKoy, Alan Frazier. (R, 116 mins)

2017's GET OUT came along at the perfect moment in time to serve as zeitgeist-capturing, sociopolitical snapshot of American culture. It also earned a Best Screenplay Oscar for writer/director Jordan Peele, then best known for the sketch comedy stylings of KEY & PEELE and on nobody's radar to be named the next major player in the horror genre. But with GET OUT, Peele found his true calling and horror the most effective way to explore his concerns, and US, his follow-up effort, is even more conceptually ambitious if at times muddled in execution. Even before a late-film split-diopter shot, I was continually reminded of Brian De Palma while watching US--not because of its subject or its style, but in its methodical and precise construction. Every shot, every plot detail, and every visual element is there for a reason, so much so that it'll take multiple viewings to pick up everything. Peele is making much grander thematic overtures with US compared to GET OUT, and it gets away from him a bit in the home stretch in a way that shows his intentions are clear in his own head but they're maybe too unwieldy to communicate in the most succinct fashion. To that end, US is a film that works terrifically as a visceral horror experience, and its greater concerns give it some timely resonance and much for an attentive and engaged audience to discuss and debate when it's over.






In a bygone era of exploitation hucksterism, this could've easily been called THE STRANGERS 3, but the home invasion angle played up in the trailer and TV spots constitutes a surprisingly little amount of screen time. In an extended prologue set in 1986, a young girl (Madison Curry) is with her bickering parents at an amusement park on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. She wanders off into a funhouse with a hall of mirrors and encounters her exact double. Cut to the present day and the girl has grown up to be Adelaide Wilson (12 YEARS A SLAVE Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o), married to Gabe (Winston Duke), and with two children: teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Even Alex). Still quietly traumatized by the 1986 funhouse incident though she's never told Gabe about it, Adelaide can barely hide her discomfort at the idea of spending a family vacation in Santa Cruz with everyone insisting they go to that very beach on the boardwalk. A very brief Jason disappearance when he wanders away to use a restroom is enough for a frazzled Adelaide to insist they go home, but that plan is put on the backburner with the sudden appearance of a family dressed in red jumpsuits appearing in the driveway of their beach house. This mystery family eventually gets into the house and are revealed to be haggard and almost feral doppelgangers of the Wilsons, all armed with large scissors and wearing one leather driving glove on their right hand: kids Umbrae (Zora) and Pluto (Jason), dad Abraham (Gabe) and mom Red (Adelaide), who speaks in a gasping, guttural wheeze and is the only one with any verbal communication skills. "It's us," Jason says. "We're Americans," Red replies.


That line from Red is a little too on-the-nose and on the heavy-handed side as far as being a somewhat cloddish harbinger of where Peele is about to take things. The home invasion soon leads to a subsequent escape and the film is only about 1/3 over as Peele steers things into a number of unexpected directions that won't be revealed here. It's probably no accident that Peele is hosting the upcoming CBS All Access reboot of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, as much of US plays like a feature-length episode of that very show. But there's a lot--maybe too much, even--to chew on here, not only with Peele wearing his influences on his sleeve, but with insightful, razor-sharp commentary on income inequality, the American underclass, and the good fortune to be blessed with health, success, and taking for granted the ability to attain the American Dream. The Wilsons don't appear to be rich, but they're very comfortable, though Gabe buys a cheap secondhand boat and is clearly a little jealous that it's not as nice as the one that his buddy Josh (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) have. The doppelgangers and the hall of mirrors are just the beginning when it comes to the recurring examples of duality (even the film's title can be read in two different ways), and it's likely the only film you'll ever see where the 1986 "Hands Across America" event takes on a completely sinister new incarnation. Peele is juggling a lot of ideas here and he can be forgiven if he doesn't quite follow through on all of them. There's a laborious exposition dump that slows down the third act and frankly, doesn't really hold up under any serious scrutiny (though I guess it doesn't really have to), and most people will see the final twist coming long before it occurs, but the film succeeds in establishing and maintaining a profound sense of unease and menace throughout and the performances by the cast, most of whom are required to play two distinctly different characters, are excellent across the board. That's particularly true of Nyong'o, who not only fashions Adelaide as a furious protector of her family but also creates a memorably terrifying figure in Red. With all its serious, heady ideas and effective jump scares (Peele is great at using every bit of the frame), US is also very funny at times, both with its snappy dialogue and a few inspired gags (like one character telling an Alexa knockoff called "Ophelia" to "call the police" only to have it play N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police" instead). You'll also never be able to hear The Beach Boys'"Good Vibrations" the same way again.







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