Produced by Monkey Paw Productions
Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Produced by Sight Unseen Pictures
Written and directed by Kent Jones
Distributed by IFC Films
Jordan Peele is the executive producer of the revived Twilight Zone series now streaming on CBS All Access. The original series fascinated him when he was a boy and he was determined to revive it. He admired the show’s originator, Rod Serling, for his commitment to telling allegorical stories freighted with social messages. I mention this because it helps explain why his second theatrical film, Us, is so silly.
The original Twilight Zone created by Rod Serling ran from 1959 to 1964. At the time it was unlike other entertainment on network television. Its offerings, however, were generally lame. They featured narratives that were almost always wholly predictable exercises in sophomoric pretentiousness. With the new Twilight Zone, Peele has embraced what was weakest in the original series: its flagrant didacticism. On the evidence of his theatrical films, Get Out and Us, Peele has carried over his Twilight Zone obsession to the big screen as well. It worked well in his first film, Get Out, but in his second, Us, he’s lost his grip badly.
When I reviewed Get Out two years ago, I reported that it was an ingenious satire of race relations in America. Peele’s thesis was that whites, especially upscale whites, envied blacks for their physical talents, especially their supposed athleticism and sexual prowess, and wanted to appropriate these endowments for themselves. To do so, they were willing to undergo brain-swap surgery so they could live in black bodies. The film has a horror template lifted from Don Siegel’s 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As Siegel had done, Peele moves his narrative so quickly that viewers are unlikely to question its premise overmuch. Like many allegories, it was quite silly (think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) but nevertheless effective in raising the issues Peele had on his mind. And what were these issues? For starters, Peele’s mother is of Italian heritage and his father, African. As such, it’s reasonable to suppose his mixed antecedents have played a significant role in his imaginative life. Steve Sailer commented on this in his review of the film at Taki’s website. Sailer supposed that as a child Peele had to endure being fawned over by his parents’ well-heeled white friends, people intent on displaying their politically correct bona fides. This, Sailer reasoned, made Peele preternaturally alert to the racial hypocrisy. Although speculative, Sailer’s analysis seems convincing.
The racial dynamic worked so well in Get Out that Peele has tried it again in Us, but this time the development of his theme is quite ham-handed. The film takes an extraordinarily long time building its premise and when it’s finally unleashed, it comes off as a thoroughly maladroit conceit. After an unnerving opening in which a nine-year-old girl (Madison Curry) encounters an uncanny duplicate of herself in an amusement park’s hall of mirrors, we cut to present time. The girl, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) has grown up, and is now a married woman with two children. Against her wishes, her affable husband (Winston Duke) insists they go to their beach house. And there the trouble begins. Soon after moving into the house, the family finds itself confronted by their doubles, wearing suspendered red jumpsuits.
The doubles, who call themselves the “tethered” seem to be the family’s repressed selves. They have been displaced by their social selves, the affluent Wilsons, in the cause of overcoming racial animosity. The Wilsons want to blend in and not stand apart from their erstwhile enemies, the white population. For their part, the Wilsons’ white friends seem to be doing the same thing. They’re denying their real feelings about blacks in the cause of superficial racial amity. The tethered, however, haven’t joined the charade. They’ve come to exact punishment on their false selves. Soon they’re menacing the Wilsons with scissors, prompting Adelaide to respond by bludgeoning them with a golf club. The scissors, one imagines, are meant to signal the tethered’s desire to separate themselves from the Wilsons and their inauthentic existence. The Wilsons’ weapon of choice, on the other hand, is an emblem of upper-class white status. Soon Adelaide is cracking skulls with her instrument of privilege. Blood and gore drench the carpets and smear the walls. The Wilsons’ sunny vacation home becomes a veritable Grand Guignol.
Allegories only work if they have narrative consistency. Us is neither consistent nor sensible. Where do the tethered come from and why haven’t they shown themselves earlier? Why have they sustained themselves on a diet of raw rabbit, as they tell the Wilsons? What’s their purpose in assaulting the Wilson family? If they are, as the film clearly implies, the Hydes to the Wilsons’ Jekylls, wouldn’t they be pleased their other halves are affluent and well-educated? The Wilsons seem to represent blacks who have rejected their past in order to be accepted by whites and join with them in indulging in America’s shallow and amnesiac culture of positive thinking.
Unfortunately, the film is a god-awful mess of half-baked notions Peele has about race in America. As such it’s one of the silliest films I’ve seen in a long while. Yet it’s been hailed almost universally in the American press. How can this be? It’s not so surprising when you consider the reception Spike Lee’s films have garnered through the years. Lee has been praised to the skies for films that are poorly made and thematically juvenile. Peele, I believe, is more talented but he needs to get a grip on his obsessions so they don’t undermine his artistic ambitions. I’m guessing he will be able to do this in his future work, which I look forward to seeing.
Turning to a very different film, there’s director Kent Jones’ Diane. It’s what used to be known as a “weepie”—the type of film that was made in the 1940’s starring Joan Crawford flaunting her agonies for all they were worth. Her characters were usually pushed to their limits by cloddish men, betrayed by ungrateful children, or cheated by male business associates. Most critics didn’t take weepies very seriously, but they were nevertheless quite profitable. Seeing Crawford triumph over adversity was catnip for the distaff audience.
Diane updates this tradition but with a difference. Mary Kay Place in the eponymous role doesn’t wear the broad-shouldered dresses that costumers thought de rigueur for Crawford. Nor does she smoke incessantly, stabbing out her cigarettes in oversized glass ashtrays while glaring with an icy regard at the loutish men she has to endure. No, Diane is a working-class, self-abnegating frump who runs herself ragged in the service of others. She’s forever making casseroles for neighbors less well-off than herself, making daily visits to her cousin who’s dying of cervical cancer in the hospital, ladling food to the needy in a soup kitchen, washing and ironing her drug-addicted son’s clothes. Her daily errands of mercy seem never to end and her dour face tells you that she lives in a state of perpetual beleaguerment. Her story takes place in a shabby, working-class town somewhere in western Massachusetts. To enforce the dreariness of her life, Jones repeatedly cuts to wintry scenes in which Diane makes her daily rounds driving along desolate back roads lined with black, leafless trees. You can’t help wondering what keeps her going. Why does she put up with such a joyless life?
Some reviewers have referred to her as a saint but this seems utterly wrong. However put-upon saints may have been, they’re usually described as having reserves of humor even when most oppressed. They’re joyful in their service to God and their neighbors. Diane’s unrelieved dour expression makes clear that she’s not among their number. She never laughs; her smiles always look forced. Which makes this film something to endure rather than to celebrate. Perhaps Jones intended to dramatize self-absorption rather than saintliness. Whether he did or not, his film leaves us with a protagonist whose apparent generosity seems rather a mask for her self-importance.
The film reminded me of First Reformed. Like that puritanical number, Diane mistakes the dismal for the outward sign of sanctified unworldliness. I found it sinfully boring.