The tricky second album syndrome has led to many a band fall carelessly by the wayside as they struggle to emulate upon their own striking debut. In film it’s no different, and after the huge success of the Oscar winning horror movie Get Out, all eyes were on comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele to see if he could match what came before.
Naturally he has set himself rather high standards, given the ingenuity and originality of Get Out, but with Us he has more than proven he’s a filmmaker we ought to be taking very seriously. So much so, comparisons made to Alfred Hitchcock are being made. It’s clear to see why: Peele has a way with dramatic tension, his ability to build suspense and intelligently craft his narrative to make it as powerful as possible. It’s small little moments, seemingly innocuous, but they’re all part of a building process, woven into the storyline. Like the moment in Get Out when our protagonist runs over a deer in the early stages. The implications on the story at hand are subtle, but the intensity of the scene, and the way Peele plays with our perceptions, and our fears, is horror storytelling at its finest.
Us is no different, the way Peele shoots horror is remarkable. He abides by convention to a point, using the same familiar tropes and devices of the horror genre that have such an impact on the viewer, but with a twist, a very distinctive one to him in fact as he’s already stamping his own unique sensibilities into the genre. It’s the simple things; the way he uses his camera, the lighting, the use of shadows, always looking over your shoulder wondering what could be lurking. In short, it’s a perennial sense of dread.
So where do the filmmakers differ? Well, that’s sort of clear. For Peele has steeped his tales in a profoundly relevant socio-political context, and while still making timeless cinematic pieces, they feel very much of the moment, tackling issues around race and identity in the United States, utilising the genre to do so. After all, sometimes our best hope of understanding reality is to briefly step out of it. Get Out was even more striking in this regard. Just take ‘the sunken place’, where through hypnosis our hero enters a trance-like state, a purgatory by which the black character is effectively trapped, only for his body to be taken over by a white host. It has transcended mere movie-making, the sunken place has become a symbol for the oppression of black people. How’s that for as debut feature film.
Us isn’t quite as politically charged as what came before, but it still has its moments. I mean, there’s one scene where the black family at the core of the story are defending themselves – and subsequently killing a rich, pompous white family while ‘Fuck Tha Police’ is playing in the background. Make of that what you will. The film itself is flawed however. Peele comes out remarkably well as a director, but not quite as much as a writer here, which is surprising since it was in the Best Original Screenplay category where he won his Oscar. His direction is flawless, but the narrative is somewhat convoluted, and at times a little contrived too, perhaps just trying to do a little too much. Naturally he’s still learning as a filmmaker, so this is to be expected, but perhaps he needed to be a little more stripped back in this instance. Because the opening act is incredible, but as the story progresses and becomes increasingly more complex our interest does waiver and is sadly tested as we lose our way a little. But it’s still such a unique, and ambitious tale and the aforementioned issues don’t take too much away from another cinematic event. Which is exactly what his movies are proving to be.
So are we dealing with the new Hitchcock? And are comparisons even fair? For Hitchcock’s means of storytelling are so ingrained into the fabric of cinema, and in particular the DNA of the horror genre, that perhaps it’s inadvertent to be inspired and influenced by the master himself. Yet such comparisons are meant entirely as a compliment and a testament to Peele’s work so far. Though he’s got his own brand of movie making. Is he the nest Alfred Hitchcock? No, he’s not. He’s the first Jordan Peele.