Saturday, April 27, 2019

Jordan Peele's Us, an energetic but diffuse follow up to Get Out and how Peele's work is strangely reminding me of Sam Raimi

While it's been praised in more than a few reviews there were bound to be some dissenters on Jordan Peele's film.  Not that I went out looking for articles that were devoted to negative assessments as such but ... this one jumped out at me when I was perusing.

Beyond its vague evocation of America’s history of violence, Us relies on a strange twist that further muddles its imagery. The Tethered turn out to be more than doppelg√§ngers: they are clones of every American who have been forced to pantomime their opposites’ every move for their entire lives. The logistics of this plot detail are virtually nonexistent, but even as a metaphor it’s a baffling conceit. If the Tethered are the oppressed and neglected, the wage workers and homeless, the scapegoats whose misery sustains American dreams, then what about the actual homeless folks and wage workers and scapegoats? Why would the people who know their pain and their struggles most intimately seek to replace them, to murder them in cold blood? What are the Tethered even getting in return?
To answer this question, Peele relies on a second, obvious twist: the revelation that the two characters played by Lupita Nyong’o met and switched places as children. In order for Us to make the case that the Tethered are sympathetic and all Americans equally guilty of their bloodlust, it has to rely on a literalist conceit that downplays the family at the film’s center—and all aspects of identity other than nationality. While Adelaide and her family have a clear stake in the Tethered’s uprising due to Adelaide’s history with Red, it’s strange how much of a foregone conclusion their opposition to each other is. Albeit for different lengths of time, Red and Adelaide have both suffered at the hands of a twisted government experiment. They have both been separated from their families. They are both black women in America, which is generally a raw deal. Besides their personal scorn for each other, what do they really have to fight over? Is their bitterness so all-consuming that nothing else matters? Are they just American? To work, the film has to elude these questions at every turn. Like two mirrors placed face to face, it just reflects, endlessly.
Kearse doesn't even mention the prevalence of slavery in Native American societies so it's ... possible ... to suggest that even Kearse's criticism of Peele's essentially mythological conception of America and American history is potentially (I'm not saying actually) predicated on a kind of counter-mythology that will be of little help to people with, say, Native American ancestry who know just how pervasive and inhumane Native American forms of slavery were reported to be in the Pacific Northwest.  Then again ... it seems like a lot of cultural criticism and historical ruminations on the nature of America (TM) originate in places like the East Coast, the Midwest and ... the South and ... California.  The Pacific Northwest, the older I get, seems to figure not so prominently on musings about us, whether in a film like Us or in musings about a film like Us.

Now I'm writing what I'm writing because I have seen the film.  It's fun but it feels like it's a film that is buoyed by a strong cast that offsets what seems like muddled storytelling.

This might seem weird ... but Jordan Peele's two films remind me of Sam Raimi.  I'm not even entirely sure why, although the delicate mixture of horror, jump scare methods, weird situations and character arcs in which protagonists make terrible discoveries is not exactly a uniquely Raimi set of traits.

There's not really any splatstick in Jordan Peele's work and he seems to be going for more "pure horror" than horror comedy.

But perhaps I'm trying to say that Peele and Raimi are the kinds of cinematic storytellers where they invest in the emotional power of a scene at a visceral level with an idea that once they've engaged the viewer the plot mechanics of why the scene is even happening will just vanish. Those questions don't vanish, really, but ...

Let me give an example from a movie I still really enjoy, Spider-man 2.  Raimi has a scene in which Peter Parker is about to kiss Mary Jane Watson (you may know this scene), and suddenly realizes by way of his spider-sense, that a great big sedan is hurtling through space toward them both and he uses his reflexes to save himself and Mary Jane.  As Steven Grant put it, as fantastically memorable as this scene is it just defies all sense.  If Otto Octavius, who threw the sedan their way as he approached them in their diner moment, knows Peter Parker is Spider-man then he can get Parker's attention in some other way and if Octavius doesn't know Parker is a superhero then he's just being a fool flinging sedans to and fro in New York because he'll kill people who can't help him find Spider-man but ... hey ... the scene does look impressive.

In that sense, Jordan Peele has something in common with Sam Raimi.  Memorable, even iconic scenes in genre film are juxtaposed in narrative contexts where the second you stop thinking about the plot mechanics of "hey, so, how did all of this get set up again?" you begin to have some doubts about the plausibility of the set up.  Now I still really like Spider-man 2 but I've had time to think about how Raimi and company have some memorable scenes that have sometimes been set up with no regard for either plot or character logic.  That's kind of part of what you get with Raimi films and I'm willing to forgive that in his work.

I think I'm basically willing to forgive that in Peele's work so far but I also feel some kind of intellectual/critical obligation to note that Peele has this issue popping up in his approach to film like Sam Raimi's work has.

So I saw Us with some friends earlier this week and we enjoyed the film but these friends are middle-aged guys like myself but who have had kids.  One of the guys said the movie was engrossing and fun while he was watching it but that, you know ... if all the tethered had to eat was raw rabbit for decades they'd all have scurvy and they'd be physically weak and have really brittle bones. They wouldn't have all of this strength, agility and stamina to run around like they do in the film.   Yes ... there is that.  I had a different thought, which was that a lifetime of eating raw meat would waylay a lot of them with food poisonings.  Rabbits are not exactly the cleanest animals and the kind of infrastructure and maintenance required to keep all those rabbit cages poop free would seem to have involved enough infrastructure to get some vegetables down there.

The idea that you can clone physical bodies but not souls doesn't seem all that unique and perhaps the point was to say that somebody, anybody apparently, but probably somebody meaning a cabal of some order, tried to clone people with the idea that the clones could be used as tools to manipulate activity. But the experiment didn't work. The tethered were those bodies that were compelled to replicate, by way of sharing a soul with the original human, replicate in some truncated fashion, the activities of those humans they were cloned from.

This is obviously not a science fiction tale so how that sort of cloning was done isn't really even the point, nor is it even so much the point that clones somehow can't have souls.  It's been a while since I've read Aquinas on the topic of the soul but it's not really clear to me that you could even argue from within the context of theology that a clone somehow "could not" have a soul.

So as a social and political allegory the Tethered are those clones in the underground tunnels of America who rise up in 2019 to kill their "originals" and thus claim fully for themselves the souls they have had no choice but to share with their above ground "original selves". The plot twist in Us is that Adelaide (Nyong'o's character) is a tethered who switched places with her original, "Red", who was trapped down in the underworld.  The clone Adelaide successfully grows up, gets married, becomes a mother, and by movie's end has successfully killed and defeated her original.  This kind of switch saved for the end is not all that potent in horror film by now.  It often doesn't even really work for me, it's like the end of Candyman.  I guess it works for some people but I find these kinds of gotcha endings don't stick with me.  Maybe if you're a Calvinist that kind of ending can't be entirely horrifying because you think people rarely realize how bad they can be?

I think the movie works, perhaps more because of the fantastic cast than the script. I mean, the script seems pretty solid in terms of getting from scene to scene and with motives in place.  Adelaide is the doppleganger who has been living in our world and the rise of the Tethered is not just a threat to her family and the people of the U.S., it's also a threat in the sense that her identity could be revealed to others, that she would at some point have to admit she is someone who was among the Tethered, a clone who rose up and beat down her human original and locked her away. Even if that's never discovered there's the imposter syndrome aspect of Adelaide's self that she can no longer escape.  She has only been able to have so much luxury and comfort and love because she stole the possibility of these things from her double.

Ash does battle with a double in Army of Darkness in a far more comedic way, and the "good" Ash wins, more or less. The Dark Half, a Stephen King tale I just barely remember, had a motif of a character fighting an evil double. It's a pedestrian trope in itself but Peele's variation on the well-heeled being pursued by their doubles is slightly different. The premise that the underdweller copies have wearied of having to share the soul of their better-off originals is the added detail.

That the tethered/copy Adelaide prevails and kills her original is the twist ending that, if known from the outset, creates a variety of plot mechanical questions that the film doesn't seem written to answer.  Or perhaps, as with so many a film, the questions are the aim. The "imposter" Adelaide has become the real one by way of having killed off the original.  Critics have described this film as a kind of political fable about class and it does seem to be that but I come back to my friend's observation about just how scurvy-addled the Tethered would have to really be if they only lived on raw rabbit.

The moment where Red (original Adelaide) talks about how the clone Adelaide could have taken her with her is a reminder that, well, there's dramatic moments and then there's, well, not sure.  Perhaps in the film as fable only one of the two Adelaides could prevail.  Stories about how the seemingly well-heeled and well-off ultimately show themselves willing to murder and steal and do terrible things to get the American dream are legion and go back to film noir as well as horror.  Affluence at the price of a broken moral compass has inspired stories going back centuries.

But after the thrill ride of the film is over some basic questions about where all the rabbits came from emerge.  Rabbits breed quickly, sure, but where are THEY getting their food?  Who's feeding them?

A story in which the imposter kills off her original and has to live with being the imposter ... I've read a little bit about imposter syndrome

But the clone back story ... that just seems to be a wonky thing that causes a lot of elements to unravel when I think about them.  So the cloned Adelaide knocks original Adelaide out and handcuffs her down in the tunnels, then goes up and takes over the life that Adelaide was going to have but the parents, attempting to deal with the trauma they think their girl has gone through, spare no expense at inspiring her.  So I'm not entirely sure how the film plays out with imposter syndrome readings if the big plot reveal is that the imposter killed off her original.

That someone who seems like a good person has a cauldron of cruelty and evil inside them is ripe for narrative exploration and in this respect the story that sprung to mind as I've thought about Peele's film is Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, the film he did that was regarded as a kind of horror-comedy penance for Spider-man 3. Alison Lohman''s seemingly demure and angelic bank officer decides that she's within her powers to deny an extension on a loan to an old woman who turns out to have the power to curse her and, since this is a horror comedy, makes a point of doing so.  Lohman's character then spends a lot of effort trying to negate the effects of the curse or undo its effects (except for, if memory serves, actually doing anything about the loan decision she made).  In the end she thinks she's beaten the curse and the powers behind it but in the final climactic and, frankly, hilarious scene, her fiance recalls that there was something she dropped, the cursed button from her old shirt and when he hands it to her hell opens up and hands, well, the title is Drag Me to Hell. Raimi's film was a return to form for him and a memorable riff on how there is a whole lot of evil hidden in the sweet-seeming bank worker.

Us was enjoyable while I was watching it but the moment I started thinking about it, well, a lot of the story mechanics and particularly in the explanatory back stories shared by Adelaide to her copy, unraveled quickly.  Fortunately Nyong'o and Vernon Duke are so good at what they do their performances make it easy to forgive the tangle of world-building issues in this genre film.  But ... as a sophomore film this is, well, kind of how those films can be, where the second film is not quite as compelling as a memorable and lively initial work.

But ... seriously, the Tethered seem like they should have succumbed to malnutrition of various sorts and food poisonings way back within the first few years they existed.

A whole lot of the somewhat predictable switched doubles plot twist hinges on one dad having too much to drink and not keeping track of his kid ... which ... well, that kind of fits a horror movie trope where chaos bursts forth ... eventually ... because someone made a bad, irresponsible decision.  It raises yet another question as to how and why, given how even inattentive parents can remember and treasure moments with a child, wouldn't have worked out the ways in which this clone of Adelaide was in some way not their original child.  Peele's attempt to anchor things in some kind of shadowy technocratic conspiracy backed by a government or corporate interests or a combination of both with a punning U. S. in the Us title might be too clever for its own good by not having any clarity about the implications of this sort of world-building.

There's an axiom I've heard that some screenwriters have that if you have to choose between writing for continuity and writing for "the moment" you always write for the moment.  Well ... I don't agree.  The problem with writing for "the moment" is that writers can very often decide to write the moment out and then work toward whatever it is they think gets there even if that means bending a few things like character arcs and the ground rules of the narrative world along the way. 

It's probably going to seem a bit weird now that I've been comparing Jordan Peele's films to Sam Raimi's to now step sideways in another direction and invoke Hayao Miyazaki but in Miyazaki's tales the world-building is pretty immaculate and interacts with character arcs. If you know a few things about statuary and religious and folklore from Japan there's a certain moment in My Neighbor Totoro where you know Mei is going to be okay because of which statue is shown in a scene.  There are moments like that in his films where the world-building is detailed enough that there's symbolism in it that is welded to the plot points.

With Peele's work, by contrast, the big reveals in his films have invited viewers to say "What?"  The idea in the last act of Get Out that white liberals who voted for Obama turned out to secretly be racists who are mining black bodies in which to transplant white brains constitutes a kind of social and political commentary on a kind of white liberal cultural theft or appropriation ... but it also raises simple questions about how many body-switching brain transplants have happened.  I mean, sure, I saw Eyes without a Face last year so I get that in horror these kinds of speculative tales are about other things than the literalness with which the plot points can be realized. but the plot twist that the white liberal-voting family turns out to be racist and in a more Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of brutal way seems ... well, it's like Peele has figured out to write for moments more effectively than he's figured out how to establish how those emerge from the backstories he tags on in his third acts.

Us kind of works better than Get Out in this sense, the copy Adelaide who we see at the start of the film has killed her "original" or "real" self in the process of rising from the tunnels and joining American society.  But the suspense that seems presupposed throughout the film is that the Adelaide who is fighting to defend her family is the "real" Adelaide, not the imposter.  That only works if, as Peele has done, crucial information about what happened years ago is withheld.  Yet if the two bodies share a soul do they not share memories at some level?  To put it another way, why would the connection only work one way?  Underground Adelaide had to do or replicate whatever was going on with her above-ground "original" which would mean she'd have memories but the connection apparently does go both ways ... which ... if it does ... brings things back to some questions.

What made Adelaide "special" so that her underground clone recognizes this special quality?  That they can switch places?  Well, what's the reason for that?  Peele never answers the question and perhaps the aim in the horror is to suggest by implication there simply isn't an answer and that we don't have an explanation for why those of "us" live in relative peace and affluence in contrast to the "them" who live in the tunnels below ground.  But if that's the case then the film is made by "us" for "us" about "us" with a plot twist that the central character is a "them", an imposter who has so thoroughly assimilated into the "us" she almost forgot she was one of "them" until she has to kill the doubles of her family from the tunnels underground to save the family she has made here above the tunnels.

All of that could have, perhaps, been more poignant and pointed without so much backstory about how the people living in the tunnels had to eat only raw rabbit.  And ... where did they get their water?  The film places so much of the weight of its drama and the "them" that emerge from the tunnels that Peele's lack of interest in explaining more than sketchy harrowing accounts of what the "them" had to do makes the "us" of the film seem like it's the point of the film to a fault.  Basic questions I've mentioned so far about why only rabbit meat and raw at that? There don't seem to have been any security precautions to keep "them" from riding the escalator up to Santa Cruz as we're supposed to know it?

If the original Adelaide spent years, decades, fomenting a "them" revolution she had to live long enough to do so and there's a lot of food poisoning and sickness she'd deal with.  Raw rabbit meat, after all, has zero fiber content.  So when Red (who turns out to be the original/real Adelaide, shares that the Tethered living underground had to eat raw rabbit she doesn't look like she's had to spend thirty years doing that.  Is it a bit much to point that she's a pretty attractive woman?  Her performances are great but they also highlight just how much Peele's backstory reveals in the third act seem to collapse if you stop and think about them for any significant length of time.

Peele has a clear grasp of how to write for and to moments ... but between his two films he seems to have a habit of bringing about those moments by way of last act reveals that involve backstories that not only raise some questions that can't be answered but that, if revealed within the first acts would drain a lot of the liveliness out of his stories.

Having had a few days away from the film to think about it, it helped a lot that Peele's leads were really good.  I just can't imagine the film working at all if the leads had been more along the lines of Tyra Banks and Damon Wayans.  Nyong'o really is good at presenting the two different Adelaides, which is central to the film's plot and substance.  Vernon Duke is also memorable playing her affable but lunk-headed husband and his even more lunk-headed and implacable doppleganger.


Cal of Chelcice said...

I had an acquaintance explain to me that the difference between sci-fi and space-fantasy/opera is that the former is the fleshing out of a thought-experiment in dramatic key, while the latter is an act of world-building. Thus, if 'Us' is Sci-Fi, then all the questions of "why this? what? how?" go out the window. Of course, the backdrop and material used require a kind of symbolic presence. It shouldn't be for nothing that the rabbits are food, but what exactly do they symbolize? If it's simply that rabbits are common test subjects, then that's pretty lame.

I haven't seen the movie (or 'Get Out', though I read the plot summaries for both), but could never quite understand what Peele was doing with it. At first, when I saw the trailer, I thought 'Us' was a double-entendre for United States and the family, or humanity in general. But having heard the plot, and asked a friend, I couldn't understand any larger social commentary, criticism, or analysis, hall-marks of sci-fi. Now the movie is branded as horror, but horror is mostly like sci-fi in that it explores a scenario or a concept.

The most I could wager was that all that separates us from clones is environment, but that's pretty lame. I can't see any Hitchcockian psychoanalysis going on, as if the Tethered are the Id or some repressed self. I don't quite get it.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

explicitly invoking that clones don't have souls and so the clones share a soul with the original humans who were cloned kind of moots even the sci-fi element. I mean, sure Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was Oshii's riff on how souls could not really be designed artificially and had to be copied, so to speak, from children, but that highlights, for people who have seen enough science fiction films, that in anime there are some classic (if overrated!) anime that play with the idea that a soul can be copied or that it can emerge as the side effect of a government programming experiment. So that kind of gets me thinking that what Peele's films do is a lot of world-building that gets flipped in the third act to have some sci-fi based plot twist. But ... the trouble is that the nature of that last act sci-fi plot twist casts doubt on what the means and ends of the world-building first two acts were. In Get Out it works better in the sense that the white family has to look like Obama-voting liberals in order to gain the trust of the blacks they subdue and transplant their white relatives' brains into ... but in the sense that you have to assume brain transplants can be successfully done and ... this is the part where the American context has me thinking that any American medical professional who could successfully transplant a brain would have had a press conference ... .

My impression is that the Adelaide who is the protagonist is the clone, which is telegraphed by the early house of mirrors moment. There's no real suspense to it because of how front and center the framing of the house of mirrors shot is that young Adelaide sees a reflection of herself but one who is looking away from her. The jump cut just telegraphs that the switch has taken place. It's the kind of last act reveal that was given away in the first act, which robs it of the power that maybe it was intended to have. If it's intended to be some kind of fable about imposter syndrome then, well, it's a stylishly made film with a fantastic set of leads but it's the kind of film where the story telling mechanics seem to fall apart after you start thinking about it. That difference between exploring an idea and world-building is a good way to describe the distinctions between sci-fi and fantasy/opera ... and that helps me get a clearer sense of Peele's strengths and weaknesses. He can do the world-building elements nicely but he guts their effectiveness by leaning on last act sci-fi plot twists in a kind of M. Night Shamalan way.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

for Peele the clonese are "the tethered" so there's only a geographic separation but sharing a soul doesn't explain why the tethered "have" to duplicate the actions of their above-ground originals. There are so many love songs describing lovers as sharing a soul where we can safely surmise they do mundane things like going to the toilet separately that the simple assertion that sharing a soul dooms a person to having to do the same things as the person they share a soul with literalizing a figure of speech in a way that doesn't seem to hold up once you're not immersed in the world-building element of the film and start thinking about its plot mechanics and the logistics of that world-building. Like my friend who was noting how bad all of the Tethered would have scurvy, for instance, the world building in Peele's films invite questions that he seems to clearly have no interest in answering and in that sense it's not really a success as sci-fi but the sci-fi nature of the plot twist drains the life out of the world-building, too. he's fortunate he's been able to find fantastic actors to work with his material. I've found I can enjoy his films while I'm watching them but he's getting praised as being a more thoughtful film-maker than I personally get a sense that he is. A capable stylist with an interesting way of playing with scenes, definitely, but that kind of gets me back to my earlier comparison of Peele's work to Sam Raimi. But then Sam Raimi has never really been drawn to scripts that had sci-fi last act plot twists ...