Jordan Peele: ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’ | Daily News

Jordan Peele: ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’

I’ve watched an awful lot of horror flicks in my life, but Us scared the bejesus out of me. This was probably because Jordan Peele’s film, which came out in early 2019, was the first film in the genre I saw in a theatre. Late at night, when the lights go down and there’s hardly a soul in the hall, a movie like this gets into you. It certainly got into me.

As is usually the case, I chose not to Wikipedia the film. What was it that Henri-Georges Clouzot warned his audiences not to do after seeing Les Diaboliques? What Agatha Christie warned her audiences not to do after seeing The Mousetrap: don’t reveal the twist. Peele could have given the same warning in his credits: there’s a massive twist towards the end of “Us”, and for the life of me, I did not see it coming. At least you knew something was amiss about the protagonist’s friends in Clouzot’s film and the only guy who can’t be the murderer in Christie’s play. The twist here, on the other hand, boggled me over. What do you do when you realise that every assumption you made about a story falls through?

Of course, there’s a lot more to Peele’s film than the final revelation. It’s the most intriguing horror film I’ve seen in years. The story delivers effective enough jump-scares and makes no compromises: it kills every character we despise and only barely spares the rest. When the horrifying stuff comes, which isn’t too late into the story, you tend to hold back your breath: even by the logic of horror flicks, what’s happening doesn’t seem plausible.

Endemic to horror movies

The whole film revolves around the theme of doppelgangers: that’s a theme as endemic to horror movies as it is to the world of myths and fables, from whatever culture and country. What Peele does is to give a fresh, contemporary relevance to the age-old motif, exploring and addressing other concerns. He does it so well that we let go of a sense of time or place. This could be happening anywhere at any time: it so happens to be the US over the course of two decades or so. The very last shot connects to the very first, linking the past with the present. Peele’s film is, in one sense at least, a hyperlink film, except that the past is buried in the memory of its protagonist and comes out into the open only in the end.

Because much of the story is told from her perspective, we come to rely on her. And she is a reliable witness: what she sees is what we see. Yet from the beginning, as her family goes on a vacation to a place not far from where she was born, we realise she’s hiding something. It must be about that harrowing encounter with a doppelganger she had in the prologue, as a little girl. But is that it? Halfway through the story, even her husband suspects she’s hiding a bigger secret. He doesn’t open up his thoughts, of course – the family’s battling enough and more demons as they are – but watching him and the kids talk with her, you realise that the secret’s probably deeper, and darker, than what the flashback scenes tell us.

There is a clue in one of those scenes – we hear the girl’s father complain to the doctor that after she emerged from the Hall she has become different – but this we barely register. It is much later that we understand how important that snatch of dialogue was.

Peele has the ability to bring together horror and comedy in his films. He underplayed the comic elements in his debut, Get Out (2017). In Us, on the other hand, he deploys his comic skills to macabre effect. The white family who befriend the protagonist’s family are killed in the bloodiest way possible, but I chortled when the HomePod played out a whole selection of rock and metal music in response to their incoherent, dying gasps.

Battling the double

The father, played by Winston Duke, is clumsy and funny to the point of embodying the stereotypical middle-class black father, and there are great sequences where he almost treats the dilemma they are in as a minor inconvenience, like when he’s battling his double. The funniness sags towards the end, especially with the final, decisive encounter. Yet even then, observing the almost allegorical set-up, you almost feel like smiling.

Jordan Peele is at his best when he suspends our disbelief without making it out that he’s suspending our disbelief. He doesn’t spring his surprises; he times and delays them. Unlike, say, a movie like The Conjuring where we are so aware of the mechanics of horror that we know what to expect and see, in Get Out and Us there’s very little we know.

Peele is, of course, not some lone auteur outsider challenging Hollywood: there are enough references to past horror flicks in these films to make us aware that he’s only too aware of Hollywood; in particular, the reference to Kubrick’s The Shining is too obvious to ignore in Us. Yet what Peele does, which directors of conventional thrillers do not, is to subvert the tropes of these genres. Kubrick himself turned the codes of genre films upside down: that’s why Lolita or The Shining look so different. Yet Kubrick did not make it too obvious that he was engaging in questioning these tropes and motifs.

Like Kubrick’s films, Peele’s films don’t give away the director’s subversions of established film genre codes and taboos. He’s like a kid trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle or get his Rubik’s Cube right. I think that has to do with the themes he prefers to explore and the times in which he finds himself exploring them.

When you realise that half of Get Out, to me his best work, parodies Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, a film about racial prejudice from the mid-1960s that worked with every cliché in the book to get its message across, you realise that Peele isn’t just raging against racial prejudice, he’s critiquing the way such prejudice is viewed by the most avowed opponents of it. Get Out is not about slave-owners; it’s about abolitionists who publicise their rejection of the slave-owning enterprise. Us sets up something of a similar critique. Peele is easily one of the most facetious directors working out there today. One only hopes he delivers more of the same in the movies he makes and dishes out in future.

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