Magazine April 22, 2019, Issue

Jordan Peele’s Us and the Perils of World-Building

Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and Evan Alex in Us (Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures)

One of the great challenges of genre filmmaking is figuring out how to handle your mythology. Over-explain the whys and wherefores of your fantastic or terrifying scenario and you might rob the story of its mystery; under-explain and you risk your sub-creation feeling like a hasty sketch. Borrow everything from genre lore and you risk reeking of uncreativity; strike out on your own and invent promiscuously and you risk coming up with something laughable or threadbare or simply fake-seeming rather than genuinely mythic.

Often the same director will experiment with different approaches from film to film, sub-creation to sub-creation. For Pan’s Labyrinth, a decade back, Guillermo del Toro wove a rich fairy-tale landscape that borrowed a bit from the classics but was also daringly and dazzlingly original. For The Shape of Water, his recent Best Picture winner, del Toro went more minimalist, dropping a mythical creature in Cold War politics without really giving us anything to explain where — besides, well, somewhere in the Amazon — his fish-man really came from.

Since The Shape of Water is a bad movie while Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterpiece, it might be tempting to draw a lesson from the contrast and say that myths should always be fleshed out rather than just sketched. But it’s also easy to think of counterexamples: For instance, a movie often confused in conversation (at least by me) with The Shape of Water, M. Night Shyamalan’s waterlogged disaster Lady in the Water, is infinitely worse because of how much it wants to tell us about its fairy-tale world’s Narfs and Scrunts.

For a timely less-can-be-more example of world-building, we have the contrast between the second film from Jordan Peele, his new horror hit Us, and his debut blockbuster, Get Out. Peele is extremely talented, and the new movie is fascinating, gripping, and frequently effective. At the same time, there is too much unsuccessful world-building in the movie, Peele’s attempt to invent a mythos feels laborious rather than natural, and in the end, the underlying scenario never achieves the nightmarish internal logic of the far simpler Get Out.

The new movie’s heroine, a middle-class African-American mom named Adelaide, is played by Lupita Nyong’o, but we first meet her as a young girl in the 1980s, hanging out with her bickering parents on the Santa Clara boardwalk and then slipping away from them to investigate a hall of mirrors, where she comes face to face with something that looks just like her but isn’t her reflection.

Flash-forward 30 years, and she’s grown up to be the wife of Gabe (Winston Duke), a jovial, put-upon dad stereotype, and the mother of a high-school runner, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and a somewhat recessive young son, Jason (Evan Alex). They’re all on a lakeside vacation, but one close enough to the coast that Gabe pressures Adelaide into letting them go meet his better-off, extremely white pals (played excellently by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) at the same beach where she had her (unknown to her husband) childhood trauma.

A series of eerie beachfront coincidences amp up her agitation, and that night she tells her husband about what happened to her, about the double she encountered, about her fear that her doppelgänger has been lying in wait all her life. Then the power goes out and a family of four appears at the top of their driveway — a family of four that looks exactly (allowing for different clothes, hairstyles, comfort with spoken English, and levels of insanity) like them, with Adelaide’s double, Red, as its terrifying matriarch.

To this point the movie’s execution is near perfect, and the initial encounters between the doppelgängers and their originals, their prey, are a brilliant variation on the clichés of the home-invasion genre. (“Don’t burn down our house,” Red warns her masked pyromaniac version of the family’s son.) But at a certain point Peele decides that the doubles cannot be left as creatures of the American supernatural, the horrifying unexplained — that biblical references and Native American burial-ground nods and class-conflict metaphors can’t substitute for some good old-fashioned expository dialogue from Red and a trip down into the literal subterranean to find out where the “tethered” (as the doubles call themselves) were originally made.

And the explanation doesn’t work. It hits the sour spot of being just realistic enough to be unbelievable, just explained enough to raise endless distracting questions that aren’t particularly relevant to the central drama, the Red–Adelaide pas de deux. “We’re Americans,” says Red, when asked to identify her brood. Peele would have probably been better off leaving it at that, instead of lashing his third act to a huge groaning steamboat’s worth of “Wait, what?” world-building.

Still, a movie can be an ambitious mess and also worth seeing, and since Peele’s next project is a relaunch of the The Twilight Zone, the fact that Us is overstuffed with ideas and references probably bodes well for his bid to be our impresario of the uncanny. Not every invented mythology comes to life, but the trying is admirable, the final twist in Us is a killer — and if this is what a Peele movie looks like when it doesn’t quite succeed, may there be many more to come.

This article appears as “Impresario of the Uncanny” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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Readers write in on Patrick T. Brown's essay on parenting and Jack Fowler's piece on Mark Janus.

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