**** Jordan Peele’s career has always been about joy. From Key & Peele to his excitement at helming the Twilight Zone reboot, the happiness he gleans from creating—from throwing himself wholly over to his passions with childlike enthusiasm—clearly drives him. Us, his second film after the game-changing Get Out, is a reflection of those passions and one of the finest horror thrillers in recent memory.
Us is a film concerned with dualities, so much so that even the title acts as one. This is undoubtedly an American film, and there are a number of deeply entrenched American dichotomies under examination here: the difference between our flesh-and-blood selves and our digital ones; the sickening and ever-expanding economic divide; gender roles and the battles to change or keep them; and the vehement us-versus-them mentality Donald Trump has fueled. Jordan Peele doesn’t tell his audience precisely what’s afoot here, and Us is stronger for that choice.
The theme of the distressing “other” is reflected in the story of the Wilsons, a well-off family of four, and a harrowing encounter with their deeply malevolent doppelgängers. These not quite humans (or are they?) call themselves the Tethered—tellingly, a VHS copy of C.H.U.D. is highly visible in an opening shot. Highly animalistic in nature, these children of a lesser god move by lurching disjointedly about, sometimes on all fours, and communicate largely through grunts and screams.
As good as these performances are, Us is undoubtedly a film carried by its female characters and the brilliant actresses playing them. Elizabeth Moss plays Heidecker’s wife, Kitty Tyler, and makes the most of her limited time onscreen. In a perfectly subtle performance, she makes the act of simply applying lip gloss spellbinding, reminding us that she’s truly a master of the craft.
And then we have Lupita Nyong’o’s transcendent acting as dueling matriarchs: Adelaide Wilson and Red, her subterranean counterpart. Though she’s been featured in supporting roles since winning an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave in 2014, Peele has created an unbelievably juicy starring role for her here. The sheer physicality of her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Red’s guttural croak of a voice sounds like it hasn’t been used in decades, and the way she moves—like a deadly ballerina manipulated from above by a devilish marionettist—will send chills down your spine. Adelaide is a far less showy construct, but no less a marvel. An understated, nervous character at the film’s beginning, she reveals herself to be a Russian nesting doll with layers of emotions by the end after defending her family by any means necessary.
The film's most harrowing line, one that will launch a thousand think pieces, occurs when Red is desperately asked who the Tethered are. She scoffs before croaking out a simple, seemingly obvious (to her) response: "We're Americans." This meaty piece of dialogue is delivered rather early in the film and not revisited, leaving the viewer to ponder what exactly Red—and by extension writer-director Peele—meant. Clearly, he's not the type of filmmaker to spoon feed meaning to the audience. And that's one of the strengths of Us. There's a bubbling sense of unease just below the surface, but you can't quite pinpoint the source. It's that opaque insidiousness that drives this movie into truly memorable territory along with Peele's original approach to horror that will leave an indelible mark on modern cinema. R. DONOVAN FARLEY. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, Cinemagic, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Fox Tower, Hollywood, Laurelhurst, Living Room, Lloyd, Oak Grove, Scappoose, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Studio One, Tigard, Vancouver.
Ash Is Purest White
One of the leading Chinese filmmakers of the era, Jia Zhangke rose to prominence plumbing the less flattering corners his censorship-prone nation for violence and loss. Give and take over what to put on film continue to underlie Jia's newest picture, an oblique saga whose most cathartic moments feel redacted by the artist himself. Spanning two decades and three timelines, Ash Is Purest White chronicles a love story between small-time gangsters Qiao (Zhao Tao) and Bin (Liao Fan) driven apart by personal failure and an economically booming China paving over their underworld. Jia's ninth feature is as riveting as it is puzzling. Foremost, Zhao (Jia's wife and regular collaborator) is the ideal epic heroine, pronouncing moments of melodrama (like the first time she wraps her fingers around a gun) but equally willing to scrape through more humbling scenes of con artistry just to secure her next meal. But her character's timeless bond to Bin, which by all rights should hoist this 150-minute heavyweight, is nearly invisible. It's as though we're meant to take the movie's word on all the missing moments of intimacy, both physical and conversational. Call it subversion, call it suppression—the result is an artful malaise. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Fox Tower.
To the degree any Marvel movie could be considered an afterthought, the comics publisher and now media empire's foray into superheroine-dom does function as something of an explanatory footnote wedged in the margins of Avengers: Infinity War. After all, Ms. Marvel hasn't quite the cultural footprint of, say, Wonder Woman, but anonymity has its advantages. Opening inside the apartment of the seemingly all-American girl Vers (Brie Larson), we know only that the amnesiac warrior has been trained by a golden-irised Jude Law as commando for the blue-skinned Kree empire. When abducted by shape-shifting Skrulls seeking the origins of some light-speed engine MacGuffin, we try to make sense of the scattered memories and share the titular protagonist's confusion as the trail leads across the galaxy to the technological backwater of Earth circa 1995. Setting the story during the Clinton era enables not only a platinum alt-grrrl soundtrack (Breeders, Hole, Garbage) but blessed freedom from the cross-referential winks otherwise plaguing the MCU oeuvre. Alas, the directorial tandem of Mississippi Grind vets Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck never quite gets comfortable orchestrating the requisite snarky exposition dumps and CGI-laden battles these pictures require, but their loping rhythms slowly heighten the emotional charge as Larson creates from whole cloth a recognizable template of unsinkable feminine swagger. PG-13. JAY HORTON. Bagdad, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Division, Eastport, Laurelhurst, Lloyd, Milwaukie, Moreland, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Roseway, Scappoose, St. Johns Twin Cinema & Pub, Studio One, Tigard, Vancouver.
Gaspar Noé's latest journey into the depths of human depravity, Climax—in which a troupe of young dancers are unwittingly slipped LSD in sangria and then overcome by madness—unequivocally contains some of the filmmaker's finest work. Though at times the movie is hamstrung by some of Noé's usual preoccupations, namely his seemingly unquenchable desire to offend and shock. After some opening interviews introducing us to the film's racially and sexually diverse characters, we're brought to the story proper via a thrilling dance sequence that is quite possibly the best I've ever seen committed to film. When Noé gifts the audience with a second choreographed number—and "gift" is absolutely the word for these astonishing scenes—I found myself hoping he would focus on the joyous abandonment of dancing. He does not. As the performers begin to succumb to the acid now coursing through their bodies, Noé puts them through all manner of horrors. And that's the main issue with an otherwise enthralling work. The paranoia that slowly overcomes the group is masterfully presented—Benoît Debie's disorienting cinematography is stellar, and when combined with the nonstop pulsating electronic music, it provides the viewer with an otherworldly anxiety not unlike a bad trip. However, the characters are lesser for the illogical way they hasten themselves to incredible cruelty and violence. Noé is a captivating, unmistakably talented filmmaker, but one wishes he was a tad less hellbent on making his audiences stare the worst of humanity in the face. R. DONOVAN FARLEY. Bridgeport, Cinema 21, Laurelhurst.