Film Review: US

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After seeing the trailer for Jordan Peele’s new film, I was left with this strange sense of unease. Something was off. I know, it’s a horror movie. It’s supposed to set an atmosphere of mental discomfort. But this was a subtle unease, like walking into your house and knowing something is amiss but you can’t put your finger on it. Then I saw the movie and realized the skewed detail I’d gotten hung up on was during the car scene where the Wilson family is listening to Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It.” The mother, Adelaide, tells her son to “get into rhythm,” and then proceeds to snap her fingers…off beat.

Huh?

At first, I thought it was just me but after reading up on it online, I realized it was actually a thing; a harbinger of truth pointing to Adelaide’s disturbing past. And that’s the beauty of “Us”. It’s going to toy with you, give you a few fake-outs and distractive ploys. Then it’s going to sock you in the gut with an intelligent sucker punch but for hours and days and weeks afterward, you’ll realize you actually got hit in the brainpan.

First, a brief synopsis: Adelaide Wilson takes a beach vacation to Santa Cruz with her husband, Gabe, and their two children. Haunted by a childhood trauma that occurred in a mirrored funhouse on the carnival pier, Adelaide begins to take notice of strange coincidences. She sees an odd vagrant with the sign, “Jeremiah 11:11”. Clocks read 11:11. A rogue Frisbee lands beside her, perfectly aligned with a polka dot on the towel pattern.

That night, four trespassers show up on their driveway. After a tense invasion of the Wilson’s beach house, Adelaide and her family come face to face with their doppelgangers, each a dark, deranged version of themselves dressed in matching red jumpsuits. Adelaide’s double, Red, reveals they were the subjects of an inhumane and failed experiment of clones forced to play out every action of their above-ground counterparts. Armed with a dagger-sharp pair of golden scissors, she aims to free herself and her demented family as second-class shadow-people by killing the Wilsons and taking their place above ground. Thus, the “untethering” begins. Snip, snip.

As with his debut film “Get Out”, Peele is wedging open the door on a new subgenre: societal horror. The fear surrounding social issues that plague the public today is over-ripe for exactly this kind of creative commentary. These are the subjects that privileged society would like to sweep under the rug: topics including mental illness, racism, unconscious biases, and discrimination. These are not well understood and what’s worse, they are not well-accepted. 

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People lean on belief systems to help them make choices. These are personal life lessons, religious teachings, parental guidance, peer pressures to assimilate. All these experiences act as a moral barometer. Now show those belief systems from an opposite perspective and those same people are left feeling totally confused, attacked, angry, defensive, helpless and desperate. They target the catalyst that brought the issue forward and not the issue itself. And usually, this translates into immense pressure being put upon the victims to become “normal” in order to be accepted into society again. It’s now their responsibility to stifle their hurt so the rest of the world feels comfortable. Translation: fix yourself. And if you can’t fix yourself, please have the courtesy not to talk about it. 

Herein lies another hidden beauty about “Us”. It is the catalyst. It shows the basic human fear of accepting our own duality. It presents a stark and uncomfortable contrast of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil…our shadow selves versus the masks we show to the world. And how we react when there is a critical imbalance of this light and dark power: rejection, jealousy, suspicion, paranoia, anger, violence. These knee-jerk emotions drive the need to delineate the status of “us” versus “them”.

Peele records these primal fears places them in the hearts of seemingly normal characters and plays it back in a distorted, reflective environment. Indeed, mirrors and reflections play a key visual element. There’s the presence of a “twin concept”, especially in the number eleven as it pops up on television, the time on clocks, in Bible verse, sports scores, even in abstract shadows. While this doubling can be consumed quite literally, it is best appreciated after you’ve seen the movie and had time to reflect on the multi-faceted meanings. And I’m not just trying to be punny here. These coincidences lead the characters to discover how their actions have helped or harmed others despite their intent, even how their actions have contributed to their own entrapment.

In addition to the psychology of duality, there is the theme of the American dream. The “haves” and “have nots”. Class structures and, in the constant strive to keep up with the Jones’, society’s inability to appreciate what they do have in their lives. There is a moral price for naivety and social complacency and this transaction plays out between the Wilson family and their tethered family of clones (but with more melodrama and excessive blood spray, of course).

Refreshingly, a talented, diverse cast takes the main stage. I am not a POC but I can attest that the amount of stories I’ve watched about white people has fatigued my appreciation for an intriguing plot. Presented here is a unique, well-told story about characters of color even though the story isn’t specifically about race. “Us” allows a brilliant opportunity for discussion of Hollywood’s lack of diversity without pandering to the audience. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is spell-binding, especially in her disturbing portrayal of Red. She files her voice to a raspy, jagged husk and moves like a caged but confident animal who has conquered the laboratory labyrinth. Winston Duke deserves praise as well for bringing humanity and humor to the father figure trying to protect his family.

As a writer, my brain is always in “plot & character” mode. I tend to be severely critical of books and movies that lack logic or at least a moderate attempt at believability. Plot holes, if small enough, are forgivable. Give me a good story and I’ll give appropriate credit for the effort.

But don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.

A good story doesn’t have to be airtight. In fact, if a movie is too clean this can be a bit condescending to the audience, as if the writer has said, “Here, I’ve done all the thinking for you in case you couldn’t figure it out.” Nor does a good story leave glaringly large voids that prevent the story from making reasonable sense. A smart writer knows how to leave just enough mystery without compromising a satisfying ending.

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So with that said, are there plot holes in “Us”? Yes. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this post-spoiler-free for those who have not seen the movie yet but just know that when the credits roll, you will have questions. Normally plot holes signal sloppy plotting and rushed production but in this instance, it is apparent that Peele has too much respect for the craft and his audience to have done this inadvertently. Go online to any of the numerous “Us” discussion boards or YouTube videos and you’ll find that deconstructing all the Easter eggs in this movie is half the fun. Personally, I feel the gaps are present on purpose. Maybe these plot holes give room for interpretation of the figurative gaps in society. Gaps in opportunity for individuals of lesser means. Gaps in understanding on common social issues. Gaps in memory due to trauma. The important takeaway is the ending gives closure while opening a Pandora’s box to a harsh new reality.

There’s plenty of action and gore to satisfy any terror junkie but “Us” goes beyond the blood spatter and gets cerebral. It touches on something more subtle in the human psyche. Darkness is not always evil. We must consider all the catalysts that trigger our fear and ask the simple question, “Why?” Does this emotion really stem from something out in the world or is it inside? And if it is inside, are we brave enough to face it? Ignorance can trap us in our own mirror house of horror for as long as we choose. We can close our eyes if we’re scared. But our reflections are still there. The shadow selves will wait until we’re ready to see what they have to teach us. And when that day comes, who will do the untethering? Snip, snip.

By: Erica Ruhe

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Short Story: Animortis Part III

zombie2Charlie turned his head and spotted the shotgun, rattling unattended in the farthest corner of the carriage floor. He still had one more shot. Gathering his strength, he twisted his shoulders, released his right hand on the girl’s throat and reached for the gun. It wobbled inches from his extended fingertips. He stretched further. The rear of the carriage lurched downward, the broken axel moments from failing. Feeling his left hold falter, Charlie abandoned his efforts and pushed back on her throat again. Desperation mounting, his eyes cut to Baumgart. The Earl remained incapacitated.

The girl wrapped her cold, palms around the back of Charlie’s neck, pulling him closer to her salivating mouth. Glassy, green eyes roved in their sockets. She screeched like a wild animal and snapped her broken, jagged teeth inches from his face. There was nothing human left in this shell of a girl. With a strike of dread in his heart, Charlie realized they were an even match of strength.

“Charles?”

Charlie looked down to his feet as Baumgart blinked back to life.
“My lord!” he strained against the girl.
Distracted, the girl whipped her head back to the Earl.

Charlie bent a leg between him and the girl and kicked her away. She fell back onto her minced knees. With all his force, Charlie brought up his right leg and delivered a smart boot to her face. Blood squirted out in all directions from under the sole of his shoe, accompanied by a chilling crack. The girl’s head recoiled and she grunted from the impact, arms spinning into wild wind-mills as she teetered backward. She fell, her spine bowed backward over carriage side, hands scratching for a hold. Charlie scooped up the shotgun just as the girl’s fingers caught the door latch release. The door flung open behind Baumgart and he tilted, wild-eyed, out of the landau.

“Charles!” Baumgart shouted. His arms sprang wide to either side of the opening, saving himself from a fatal tumble out the doorway.
“Hold fast!” Charlie doubled over and snagged Baumgart’s wrist. Bracing a foot on the side of the carriage, Charlie hauled him up and onto his feet.
“Are you hurt?” he breathed, steadying the Earl’s footing.
“I…” Baumgart’s pallid lips quivered. “I am alive.”

Beside him the maiden regained her balance. She blinked a moment in confusion, dark black blood gushing from her broken nose. Charlie maneuvered in front of the Earl and took aim a final time. The rear of the carriage shifted downward again and the bullet missed and ricocheted with a loud ‘ping’ on the iron carriage frame.

“Damn! C’mon!” he shouted, grabbing Baumgart by his vest lapels and forcing him up toward the coachman’s bench. “We haven’t much time.”

Baumgart scrambled up to the platform and swung over the guardrail. As Charlie pulled his torso up onto the railing, a final fierce shudder up the chassis signaled that the cracked axel had split completely. The back end lurched down with a heavy crash upon the road causing the rear wheels to tilt and spin free of the wood frame. Charlie’s footing slid off the railing and his body whiplashed against the front bench, cracking one of his ribs. He cried out at the sharp pain and hung from the guardrail by his underarms. Behind him, wood paneling scraped and splintered under the friction like a wooden sword put to a stone grinder.

“Take my hand, Charles!” Baumgart extended his arm. Charlie winced and clenched his teeth against the pain.

“Please,” he found a firm foothold, “Rein in the horses, if you can.”
Baumgart turned to the whip socket as Charlie struggled atop the coachman’s bench and planted his seat on the back of the guardrails.

“Oh no.” Baumgart’s mouth fell open and the last bit of color bled from his cheeks. His voice barely broke over the rumble of the pounding hooves. Charlie followed his line of sight up the road as the team cleared a bend in the forest path. His stomach dropped.

“Oh bloody hell.”

At the railway crossing in the distance ahead, a small horse-cart and its driver waited patiently behind the lowered level bar for an approaching train to pass. Charlie glanced to the whip socket. The leather straps were gone. Below, they lashed and slapped under the terrified horse hooves.

A horn blared off in the distance.

Baumgart shook his head and grabbed Charlie by the arm. “The team is lost, Charles,” he shouted over the roar. “We must jump carriage!”
The horses were inconsolable and the flesh-hungry girl was…Charlie felt a hand lock around his ankle. He looked down to see the maiden grinning back. With one hand on the guardrail and the other holding tight at his riding boot, she swayed like a drunk dancer in the disintegrating coach.

“Go, sir!” Charles unhanded himself from Baumgart.

“But—.”

Another loud crack split the air and the rear bench seat dislodged from the carriage, rolling away with a smash that left the maiden’s feet dangling above the speeding road. Charlie braced against the bench at the added weight of the girl. The horses would be dragging their tack in a few minutes more.
“Please, sir!” Charles begged. “Go now!”

His face tight with terror, Baumgart turned and steadied himself at the edge of the platform. He glanced back, “God bless you, Charles,” and threw himself out into the forest, disappearing behind the dark curtain of night before Charlie even saw him strike the ground. Charlie swiveled his head in search of another weapon but there was nothing left to defend himself. The whip was gone, the gun was lost. He had nothing.

Much louder now, the locomotive hailed its coming again. With the fire of pain searing his left rib, Charlie twisted and jerked his leg until he felt his muscles cramp but she would not let go. He never thought his life would end like this, killed on a mundane carriage ride to Coburg by a mad-girl cannibal. No one would believe the tale if he survived to tell it.

Beside him, hot oil from the swinging lanterns splashed onto the bench, setting the wood alight. Charlie’s eyes widened. His brain surged, jolting one last bit of hope into his heart.

Charlie fumbled for the oil lamp behind him.
“Burn in Hell, wretched devil!”

Charlie smashed the hot lamp down upon the girl. Glass shattered and burning oil splashed down over the maiden’s head, anointing her with bright orange fire. An unearthly shriek burst from her throat and her grip loosened. Charlie wormed free, swung his legs over the side of the platform and, with a quick prayer to the Almighty, jumped free of the carriage.

The ground hit him with a breath-stealing impact. Charlie rolled his shoulders with the bruising momentum until he slowed and flopped to a halt under a large tree, dizzy and gasping like a netted fish. He lay there a moment in disbelief until panic struck his gut. He jerked upright to see if he had truly escaped and watched, incredulous, as the disaster unfolded.

The train rounded a wide curve and barreled toward the crossing. Setting dry branches and brush alight as she passed, the maiden thrashed and screamed on the carriage, oblivious to her own fate. Hearing the commotion behind him, the old peddler scrambled down off his cart to rescue his pony. Realizing his goods could not be saved, he unhitched his mare and gave her a hearty slap on the hind quarter. The animal bolted to safety across the tracks and the poor man limped away as fast as he skinny legs would take him. The Greys were just meters from the intersection.

Up the tracks, a shout pierced through the cacophony. Sounds of metal on metal screeched through the forest as the train slammed down on its emergency brakes. The train blared the horn at its inevitable arrival.

Charlie’s beloved Greys, having seen the cart too late, squealed and skittered, their hooves gouging deep into the cold, soft earth as they struggled to veer left, away from the cart. Rigging clanged and wood creaked in protest but the impact was imminent. The wooden draft poles finally snapped under the strain, sending the carriage skidding sideways into the cart. The impact of the royal coach smashing into the back of the peddler’s cart sent it airborne, careening into a wild roll. Three of the horses broke free, galloping madly on toward Coburg. With a horrible crunching sound, the wheeler screamed and stumbled into the back of the cart creating a mass of broken slats. His neck whipped across a jagged board silencing him into instant death.

Forward momentum flung the blazing girl and landau side over side, directly into the path of the oncoming train. The locomotive engine wailed a final warning before crashing through the carriage, exploding it in mid-air with the speed and force of a giant bullet. Fiery splinters flew high into the tree canopies like a firework, the last oil lamp scattering flames up and over the sides of the railcars. The glissando of the train horn suddenly died. Metal squealed and scraped together under the protesting brakes accompanied by the solid, earthy rumble of heavy, iron wheels upon the tracks.

It was only when a small bit of wood struck Charlie’s leg that he remembered to breathe. He shook his head clear and clutched his chest, taking in large draws of air. Debris tumbled and bounced across the ground hundreds of meters in every direction. Bits of the carriage and carnage rained down all around him. Nearby, a delicate, dismembered hand flopped motionless onto the grass. Streams of dark blood oozed from the ends of the curled, claw-like fingers. From the depths of the forest, his name echoed down the road.

“Charles! Charles!”

The train continued to slow, chugging to a stop with labored effort. Surprised shouts from the crew could be heard in the distance. The peddler hobbled to meet him. Charlie tried to stand but his knees wavered like sheets in the wind. A throbbing pain swallowed his torso and seeped up his chest. Bewildered and numb, his mind faded into the cold, grey fog of shock. It was only when his knees gave out and Charlie plopped back down against the oak tree that he realized one of his legs was broken. He wheezed in disbelief at the fiery wreckage waiting for the flood of pain from his fractured femur to reach his brain. There was no movement near the horrific aftermath that lay scattered over the crossroad. Charlie was struck by the absurdity that the girl might have survived the crash. After all, she had survived everything else.

“Mein Gott, Charles!” Earl Baumgart reached his side, giving his cheek a few hearty slaps. “Keep awake now. We’ll have the doctors here, straightaway!” Charlie felt the familiar tide of nausea ebb up his stomach. It was an odd and uncomfortable reassurance that he was indeed still alive.

“God have mercy!” Earl Baumgart’s cry evaporated into the hollow shell of Charlie’s head. “God have mercy!”

THE END

READ PART I HERE

READ PART II HERE

By: Erica Ruhe