FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Sartre's concept of the Other is informed by a desire to rein in the forces of authority represented by European colonialism and capitalism. I suggest, however, that because of this ideological orientation, he could not see the same forms of evil as being either real or potential within the culture of the Other. To rewrite the injunction from the Gospel of Matthew, Sartre could see the beam in a Frenchman's eye, but none in the eye of an Algerian.-- REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER PT. 2.
I've said in many essays, both here and on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, that I consider the primary purpose of art and literature to be expressive, not instructive. I'm often suspicious of political agendas cleverly designed as entertainment. Nevertheless, I must admit that expressiveness can't be true to its nature by keeping out sociopolitical subject matter, and there are times when the works of art benefit from being grounded by the artist's view of contemporary politics. For me, the thing that separates political lecturing from political mythologizing is the author's ability to integrate his views of society into an assortment of greater epistemological concerns.
I've had only scattered exposure to Jordan Peele's work as an actor, and have seen nearly none of his behind-the-scenes work. Peele has a reputation for promoting Progressive political views, and I doubted that I would have any use for that element of his movies. That said, on this blog I've endeavored to highlight the creativity of even the most super-politicized raconteurs. If it's possible to celebrate Gene Roddenberry even when he showed some of his more conservative stripes, it should be equally possible to celebrate an ultraliberal creator even if I find his views untenable.
Perhaps the least political aspect of US is one that it shares with a number of modern horror movies: an obsessive minimalism regarding the depiction of characterization. I've avoided a lot of recent films in the genre after seeing-- and feeling burned by-- 2007's PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Whatever audiences liked about this film and the franchise it spawned, I don't think it could have had anything to do with the viewers' intense investment in the characters. Similarly, US-- Peele's sophomore horror-film after 2017's GET OUT-- eschews any real background on the film's four viewpoint characters the Wilsons: father Gabe, mother Adelaide, and their two kids Jason and Zora. The Wilson family are upscale African-American, and Adelaide-- whose backstory is seen intermittently as the story progresses-- also seems to have been from a well-to-do family.
Peele spends about half an hour exposing the audience to the friendly badinage of the Wilsons, much of which has the thematic aim of showing how well-off they are, with their beach-house in Santa Cruz, Gabe's obsession with having his own boat, and a Siri-like computer assistant named Ophelia. Peele doesn't tell the audience how they reached this apex of conspicuous consumption. Gabe, Jason and Zora all appear to be without conflicts, but Adelaide suffered some trauma in her childhood, causing modern Adelaide to be something of a control freak. Flashbacks show little Adelaide encountering a duplicate of herself in a carnival hall of mirrors, and only the least experienced viewer won't suspect that this trauma foreshadows the movie's main conflict.
In the comfort of their beach house, the Wilsons suffer home invasion by four doppelgangers of themselves. However, these people-- who claim to have a shadow-like relationship to the Wilsons-- would never pass as the originals, particularly "Red," the double of Adelaide, who leads her "family" much as Adelaide wears the pants with hers. The other three have various bizarre ticks, but Peele grants actress Lupita N'y'ongo a lion's share of time to portray Red, who speaks and moves as if unfamiliar with either activity. She claims that she and her family have lived a life of endless suffering while Adelaide and her brood have lived the high life, but the shadow-people can take the regular people's place if they kill them.
However, the doppelgangers don't immediately kill all four Wilsons, apparently because Red wants Adelaide to suffer more. This leads to a series of battles and escapes for the beleaguered Wilsons, serving to pad the film until Peele introduces not one, but two, Shyamalan-style Big Reveals.
Even before listening to Peele's ruminations about "privilege" on the DVD, it was pretty evident that Peele wasn't telling a generic horror story in which the main characters just happened to be Black Americans. The Wilsons are clearly being punished for their affluence, while Peele's sympathies lie with the marginalized doppelgangers. Peele's politics are akin to those of the Sartre quotation above, which he makes clear in his DVD remarks, asserting that everyone who possesses any level of privilege does so at the expense of some other person. This idea is one that could be given a nightmare level of expressiveness, like some of Hans Christian Andersen's darker stories. But Peele, despite knowing a lot about genre fiction, blows that potential with his desire to "virtue signal." He tosses out a few Bible quotations as proof as his sagacity, but he's certainly not concerned with any of the larger themes of the Judeo-Christian mythos, even for the purpose of satire. Similarly, even though he pays lip service to the idea that all persons have a dual nature, he's not interested in the "daylight side" of consciousness. He does manage to portray the revolt of the oppressed without boiling it down to formulas of "people of color vs. evil colonizing Caucasians," and so he's at least a little subtler than BLACK PANTHER. And for that reason, even though I feel sure that there must be some contemporary ultraliberal creator out there capable of superior creativity, Jordan Peele is not that creator.