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PEELE APART, WEEK 2: US and Other Families

Screens 6/11-6/13 @ Brattle

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Kicking off the second week in the Brattle Theatre’s Peele Apart series is Peele’s Us, which screens in double features with both Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Honoring esteemed horror director and comedian Jordan Peele and his works’ inspirations, this trio of films each provide nuanced commentary on different aspects of Western society – through meta, psychologically deteriorated, or conspiratorial means – and how they crush the souls even of their very inhabitants. They’re not just finger-tinglers but sharply critical of their contexts in different ways.

Both double features start with Peele’s sophomore effort Us, which follows a family made up of Adelaide Thomas (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), and her two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) as they travel to their new Santa Cruz beach house. After a traumatic event in Adelaide’s childhood in which she met her doppelgänger in an abandoned fun house on the same beach, coming back brings up harsh memories – and strange coincidences. The family quickly gets terrorized by an identical family, who refer to themselves as the “Tethered” and are quickly established as a large group identical to at least Santa Cruz’s population. Her worst fears realized Adelaide must stop the Tethered from killing them all – and confront the hardest truths she’s known.

Us is, on the surface, a creepy thriller of sorts, delivering sufficiently satisfying thrills and chills along with the occasionally well-placed quip. It lulls at times, especially between hefty climaxes. Us is also the most trope-reliant of Peele’s work thus far (a villanous minutes-long explanation is delivered as the hero gazes uncertainly). Fortunately, the film’s characters are organic in dynamics and survival instinct, and there are plenty of questions about the ethics of the American class systems. The Tethered represent the ignored and ostracized – but largest – groups in the U.S. socioeconomic ladder, experiencing the pains of involuntary servitude (under- or non-paid U.S. labor) with only rotten beds and zero benefits as reward. Contrasted with Adelaide’s family’s upper-class lifestyle, this is especially pertinent. “We’re Americans,” Adelaide’s double, Red, exclaims when asked who she is. Industrially driven supply and demand requires dirt cheap and underrepresented labor – a resource the U.S. is very familiar with getting. Us represents these classist qualms in mind zapping ways.

The first of Us’s inspirations is Funny Games, which follows another similarly high-class family as they travel to their bakehouse in Austria. While there they meet two young men who claim they need eggs, who slowly pressure and eventually take hostage the entire family. They play squeamishly torturous mind games with the family, terrorizing them and slowly chipping away at each of their souls and sanities. Funny Games is not only suggestive of similar class-related differences, but it forces viewers to absorb the themes whilst sitting uncomfortably in the severe traumas of the film’s situations; with a new victim comes a long silence, where characters and viewers alike sit stunned at the violence. A clever fourth-wall factor where one of the main perpetrators occasionally questions and even encourages the audience further propels these ideas, though this component is also the least used and would have only enhanced Funny Games with more frequent appearances. The film’s violence can also border near turn-off-the-TV discomforting levels, especially with its first victim, but those better equipped for it will be fine. Nevertheless, Funny Games is a similarly class-concerned, cleverly boggling piece that embraces as much raw emotion through brutality as possible.

Us’s other inspiration, The Shining, follows writer Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and disturbed son Danny (Danny Lloyd) as they embark on a months-long off-season stay at the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Danny, whose imaginary friend Tony tells him predictions about the future, long-past histories, and the presence of the paranormal, is told by the hotel’s head cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) that this is a telepathic ability the two share called “the shining.” It allows Danny to recognize Overlook’s paranormal traces left behind from nasty incidents – which, along with the isolation of the stay, begins to deteriorate his father’s mental health rapidly. Danny, Wendy, and Dick must work to stop Jack and “this… situation,” as ghostly past caretaker Delbert Grady puts it before they all die or worse.

The Shining, though tumultuously slow throughout, is sharply horrifying and thematically open-ended. Native American paintings and crafts create subtle imagery around the hotel, symbolizing the ordeal as equally violent to American settling in Indigenous lands. Ideas of general American imperialism are represented through Jack’s reasoning for “correcting” his family of their behaviors and the hotel’s internal hierarchy – and later confirmed with a particular July 4th hotel party picture. Themes of masculinity and sexism are reflected in Jack’s condescending, demanding interactions with his wife and the desperate need to prove himself. The list goes on, as this film is intricately woven to illuminate various ideas about self and society through a propulsive story of male-dominated, slow-moving insanity. With Nicholson at the helm to personify such craziness, Kubrick’s knack for significant unease – ah, the Kubrick stare! – shines brightly.

Overall, these three films propose poignant criticisms of primarily American class and historical failings, each hooking viewers into larger fields of thematic meddling through shocking and violent means. Don’t miss them this Tuesday through Thursday, as they’re all equally darkly fun and intelligently insightful.

Us
2019
dir. Jordan Peele
116 min.

Funny Games
1997
dir. Michael Haneke
107 min.

The Shining
1980
dir. Stanley Kubrick
144 min.

Us screens Tuesday, 6/11 through Thursday, 6/13 @ Brattle Theatre. Funny Games screens (on 35mm) Tuesday, 6/11, while The Shining screens Wednesday, 6/12 and Thursday, 6/13. Click here for showtimes and ticket info.

Part of the continuing repertory series: Peele Apart

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