Category Archives: Thrillers

Movie Review: “Us”

“Us”—Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his 2017 hit “Get Out”—is that rarest of things: a genuinely original horror movie. The nuances of its themes might elude some of its viewers, but taken on its own terms, it’s a remarkably thought-provoking (and occasionally thrilling) experience.

In 1986, a little girl wanders into a mirror maze on the Santa Cruz beachfront boardwalk. What she discovers within traumatizes her for years. Fast forward to the present day, where that little girl—Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o)—is now a wife and mother of two. Their family vacation soon takes a dark turn when duplicate versions of themselves, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding razor-sharp scissors, mysteriously appear in the driveway of their vacation home.

What follows is a blend of home-invasion thriller and apocalypse drama. We soon learn that all across the nation, the same phenomenon is occurring: red-suited clones are remorselessly massacring their doubles. It turns out that this was the horror Adelaide beheld so many years ago. In the mirror maze, she met her double for the first time, the first glimpse of a coming American reckoning.

(Some spoilers follow)

We eventually learn that the strange doppelgangers are the “Tethered”—products of a government program designed to see whether one soul could subsist in two different bodies. After decades of imprisonment in underground tunnels crisscrossing the United States, they have finally rallied and burst forth into the surface world. But their ultimate goals are mysterious: after reaching the surface and killing off a fair number of non-Tethered Americans, the Tethered link their hands to form a human chain extending across the entire country.—aping an old advertisement for a “Hands Across America” charitable event. It’s a striking image that (to his credit) Peele never really explains onscreen. And it powerfully illustrates one of the movie’s core themes.

Where “Get Out” centered on race, “Us” probes the anxieties of social class. In particular, the film derives its fearsomeness from a deep-seated neurosis of the American “elite”: the fear that the Rightfully Deserving Ones will be replaced or otherwise supplanted by those who are “unworthy.” The Tethered might look like “real people,” but their clumsiness and unsophisticated speech immediately betray their humbler origins.

This reading is cemented by the image of the Tethered joining their hands in one line. From the viewer’s perspective, their behavior reflects a strange, seemingly bizarre, even anachronistichope in something greater than the individual self.  That sort of schmaltzy charity campaign, we tell ourselves, is so 1980s. We’re beyond that now. And in entertaining that thought, however fleetingly, we’re driven to confront the apparent inexplicability (for cosmopolitan sorts) of communal ways of being, of traditions and practices that can’t be justified in consumption-oriented terms. Those collective practices and memories, Peele suggests, are a fundamental part of what it means to be American—despite our best efforts to occlude or forget them.

As a result, the message of “Us” is certainly political, but in a party-transcendent sort of way. Right-wing indifference to the plight of the common man, Peele implies, is mirrored by cosmopolitan liberals’ self-satisfied consumerism. Neither group truly cares or understands about those deemed “less than.”

As a statement, “Us” packs a powerful punch; as a horror movie, it is rather less successful. For one thing, the film never conjures up as much fear as it really should. From the beginning, the Tethered come off as misunderstood far more than menacing—an understandable choice given the film’s themes, but one that undoubtedly drains the tension out of their first appearance. Additionally, with the exception of one ten-minute stretch in the middle of the film, “Us” lacks any particularly memorable cinematic mayhem. There are a few intermittently energetic set pieces, but there’s much more downtime here than there should be in any film labeled as a “thriller.”

That’s certainly not to say the movie lacks cinematic merit. In particular, Nyong’o’s performance (as both her “real” self and her doppelganger) is phenomenal, and the film is beautifully shot and choreographed. On a technical level, “Us” is a great success. But I’d be lying if I said it came anywhere close to “the best horror film of all time”—which it’s currently being billed as.

Leaving the theater, I overheard a boy in his late teens ask his friend, “Was that supposed to be, like, symbolic or something?” Alas, the audience for “cerebral sociopolitical drama, in the trappings of a horror thriller, with more blood than usual” may be fairly small—which would explain the currently widening disparity between critical and audience sentiments on Rotten Tomatoes. I doubt the word-of-mouth for this film will be particularly strong.

Perhaps any problem along those lines is really with us, the audience, and not with “Us.” It’s certainly a good movie—just not the one I was expecting. Maybe this premise would’ve worked better as an art film, a metaphysical drama, or something else other than an erstwhile slasher flick.

One thing’s for sure, though: “Us” is something genuinely different in a marketplace besotted with sequels, franchises, and cinematic universes. And that ingenuity is worth celebrating.

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Posted by on March 25, 2019 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Glass”

The story of M. Night Shyamalan’s career is certainly a dramatic one, encompassing massive hits like “The Sixth Sense” and catastrophic failures like “After Earth.” Heading into one of his films, it’s never quite clear whether it’ll be a success or a truly memorable disaster. But fortunately (for both Shyamalan and audiences), “Glass”—the third in a superhero-themed trilogy that began with 2000’s “Unbreakable” and continued in 2016’s stealth sequel “Split”—is mostly the former, even if its ambitions sometimes exceed its grasp.

On the streets of Philadelphia, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) moonlights as the poncho-clad “Overseer,” endowed with superhuman strength and dedicated to vigilante justice. A battle with the “Horde” (James McAvoy)—the psychologically damaged serial killer Kevin Crumb, harboring 24 separate personalities vying for control—results in Dunn’s incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, under the watchful eye of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulsen). As it turns out, the hospital also happens to hold the enigmatic Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a brilliant mastermind responsible for dozens of deaths.

Dr. Staple has a very specific project in mind: curing Dunn, Crumb, and Glass of their delusions of superhero grandeur. She’s determined to convince Dunn and Crumb that they don’t actually possess superhuman strength, and that Glass isn’t preternaturally brilliant. In her view, these delusions all stem from early-life traumas, which have left Dunn, Crumb, and Glass permanently scarred. It’s all in their heads.

Like much of Shyamalan’s films, “Glass” is a remarkably slow-burning thriller. There’s very little violence or intense action throughout its two-hour runtime. In fact, most of the dialogue in the film’s first hour comes from Dr. Staple, whose soothing voice and reasoned explanations almost lead us to believe she’s onto something—that the whole trilogy really is a sordid amalgamation of delusions and traumas.

It soon becomes clear that her character is strikingly reminiscent of another: the Lady of the Green Kirtle, the antagonist in the fourth installment of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, “The Silver Chair.” In that book’s climactic scene, the Lady attempts to convince the novel’s heroes that all their values and all their efforts are purely illusory—that the only reality that exists is her cold, silent, underground kingdom.

“You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world.”

In so doing, Dr. Staple reveals the film’s fascinating and unexpected thematic core: “Glass” is a defense of metanarrative over against its contemporary critics. That is, the film’s players are part of a single, larger story that cannot be reduced to chance or coincidence: there is an origin, a pattern and a terminus. This story stands apart from any one person; individuals may choose to acknowledge it or not. Dr. Staple’s overriding goal is to convince her charges that no such metanarratives exist—to persuade them that there are no “higher stories” other than those we tell ourselves. Dunn, Crumb, and Glass can certain formulate personal narratives of their actions and their place in the world, but these narratives must be understood as strictly therapeutic devices. In her account, “what is truth?” must become “what is your truth?”

“Glass” is a double-barreled demolition of this paradigm. In this film’s universe, comic books and superhero narratives take on a quasi-theological function, (seemingly serving as stand-ins for sacred texts). Written off by most of the world as pure fantasy, comics actually reflect primordial truths about superhuman beings and their interactions with the world. This is the “twist”—well, maybe not the twist, but a twist—at the center of “Glass”: there really is a transcendent narrative unfolding at all times, and a transcendent order that governs the world.

At bottom, “Glass” is the thematic opposite of “Deadpool” and “Watchmen”: where those films relied on a postmodern dismantling of classic superhero tropes, “Glass” is a post-postmodern reconstruction of the genre in an already-jaded age. It is, in short, anti-ironic. And that makes it a genuinely original and fascinating movie to watch.

From a cinematic standpoint, “Glass” is mostly effective—the claustrophobic setting of the psychiatric hospital makes a wonderful staging area—but periodically fumbles in the pacing department. The climax arrives rather too abruptly, and the final moments of the film feel a bit too cheery for this series. Additionally, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey—the heroine of “Split”—doesn’t have much to do here other than utter some inspiring phrases about human compassion. After her bravura performance last time around, it’s a shame she’s so upstaged by Dunn and company.

But on the whole, these are minor gripes. “Glass” is the superhero movie I’ve wanted Hollywood to make for almost a decade—a dark, heavily theme-driven tale that eschews heavy CGI in favor of memorable storytelling. As far as I’m concerned, the old Shyamalan is back, and the multiplex is better for it.

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Posted by on January 21, 2019 in Thrillers

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