Sometimes my method of choosing what to see at the pictures by simply perusing the blurbs in the Filmhouse brochure backfires. The 2019 film, US, sounded enticing, but seemed, upon viewing, to fall short of the mark.
The film begins with a creepy flashback to 1986, where a little girl sees herself in a hall-of-mirrors, but not as a reflection. All is not quite as it seems, and the scene cuts with the child’s eyes opening wider than seems humanly possible.
The credits kick in with raw pulsating music, accompanying seemingly anodyne images of caged rabbits. It goes on just a little too long for comfort. We may not be in for an easy ride, and yet when the film proper begins, things calm down.
For a while.
Back in the present, we’re with a family taking a holiday in a beach house near Santa Cruz. We have a bolshy teenage girl with a cheeky younger brother, a fun-loving father, and slightly weary mother: standard fare for an all-American family.
However, when they discover another family of four gathered at the foot of their driveway, things disintegrate. Yet again, things are not as they seem. These intruders gain entry to the holiday home and begin to terrorise their ‘hosts.’
We appear to be in the territory of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, where two sociopathic youths inflict horrific terror on a family, so brutal that the film itself begins to unravel beyond the surreal. But in Us the family’s oppressors, as the young boy observes, are ‘us’ – ie, they are them.
Whatever the mission of the doppelgänger family may be, the host family will need to pull together to escape the demonic destruction evidently coming their way. Just what these zombie-like people represent is not made clear, except in the line uttered by the only speaking character who mirrors the mother, “We’re Americans.” Perhaps that explains the film’s title, Us (at least it would if spelt in upper case: US) but little else makes sense.
In an apocalyptic slash-fest that takes the scissors from Dr Suess and the golf clubs from Funny Games and wreaks equal mayhem with both, the family’s attempt to escape their nemeses is hampered by further horror. They are not alone in being pursued by vengeful lookalikes.
An increasing number of these zombie-types, in red jump-suits, are holding hands, forming long lines across the neighbourhood and beyond. In one of the many jarring touches of humour, the father observes “This is one f**ked-up piece of performance art.” The teenager raises her eyebrows in despair at her father’s lack of savoir faire. Much of the humour in the film is similarly jarring.
While director, Jordan Peele, revels in making films that don’t exactly fit the perceived genre, this film is not short of horror and gore – enough to clear a few of the FIlmhouse seats on a quiet Monday evening. But what is he trying to say?
Despite the script’s shortfalls, the actors admirably achieve their double-roles, and the pace and tension is unremitting. The plot-twist at the end, as we re-enter the hall-of-mirrors, however, comes across as faintly irritating and glib. But is it?
Only after the screening do some of the unanswered questions start to niggle. That long line of red jump-suits holding hands across swathes of America plays out as the closing credits roll, with helicopter shadows giving the impression of a news bulletin. Why? Cultural references are plentiful, not least in the tee-shirts worn by certain characters. One cites the ‘Hands across America’ stunt from 1986.
A quick glance at the internet reminded me that this was a human chain formed to raise money to fight hunger and poverty, complete with a theme-song that fell somewhere between ‘Feed the World’ and ‘We are the World.’ Participants included politicians and celebrities, from President Reagan to Michael Jackson.
Perhaps the latter name explains the use of red jump-suits, evocative of Thriller, and the Michael Jackson T-shirt worn by the little girl engulfed and traumatised by the hall-of-mirrors. At this, the film, despite its flaws, begins to make sense, or at least, reveal some answers.
America is beleaguered by duality; terrified by its own shadow, tethered to its dark side, terrorised by the enemy within. While half the world is wetting its pants over whether to play the music of Michael Jackson just because a TV documentary has told us what we already knew about his dark predilections, the other half regrets the air-brushing of a cultural icon.
The duality of genius and madness is a familiar trope, and a divisive one at that. This makes the underlying message of Us a little mixed up, given that it takes a popular star whose actions we abhor but whose artistry cannot be denied, and elevates this into a complicated metaphor.
All I can say is, this isn’t the film I expected to see, going by the Filmhouse brochure blurb, but neither was it the outcome that I was expecting to draw. Whether the characters are shadows, tethered by, or emancipated by the American Dream, I cannot say. I can only quote, on reflection, the words of Joni Mitchell…
“Every picture has its shadow and it has some source of light.”
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