The Two Reviews: Us and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Us (2019, Monkeypaw Productions and Blumhouse Productions)
Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Music by Michael Abels. Featuring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Tim Heidecker.

The brilliant Jordan Peele returns to the director’s chair with another horror film. This time about a family holidaying in Santa Cruz, California who are suddenly confronted by their doppelgangers. Us is smartly written and directed by Peele and the acting is superb all around. The performances by youngsters Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are deserving of the highest of praise, while Winston Duke, who shone in Black Panther last year, provides a comical and likable turn as the naïve but ultimately adoring father of the family. However, Lupita Nyong’o gives the most extraordinary lead performance. She plays a mother who harbours some terrible psychological trauma. Like the other actors, she also plays her doppelganger, and it is in this role that Nyong’o astounds. Toni Collette was much lauded for her performance in the horror film Hereditary from last year, which I thought was extremely over-reaching. But whereas Nyong’o appears to explode into over-the-top bouts of acting at times, just like Collette, she does manage to layer her embodiment of character with deep and eerie perceptiveness.

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There are some neat pop culture references and clever underlying commentary on modern technology throughout the film, and Peele’s penchant for humour at the most unexpected of times is impressive. Comedy in a horror film needs to be managed carefully and Peele triumphs here thanks to quirky editing and comic acting by the likes of Duke and Tim Heidecker. But the film’s story on a whole does not fully triumph. It can be jarringly contrived at times and often sends mixed signals about its intents.

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Peele recently rose to prominence with his marvellous debut feature Get Out – a film that displayed a great adeptness and intelligence about historical and ongoing societal issues in the US (mainly racism). Peele proclaimed the themes of Get Out through a prominent but healthy dose of rage. In Us, that same rage is kept relatively at bay from the chief proceedings, and instead we are offered a more structurally complex approach to similar issues. Unlike the fascinating, and genuinely original, approach to horror in Get Out, Us finds roots in a more entertainment-driven and camp-ish slasher flick (like Scream for example). The film unfortunately ends up with too many unwanted clichés and thus, a less serious management of the grand themes that are meant to permeate as sub-text.

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Now Peele has said in interviews that the film was not specifically dealing with racial issues, despite the very obvious nods to the subject throughout: are we not asked to focus on the predicament of a young African American family trying to contend first with a similar but wealthier white American family and then, with more sinister versions of themselves? In Peele’s defence though, the focus of the film’s sub-text does elevate beyond US race relations and deals more broadly with the marginalisation of ‘others’ in society around the world. This is certainly commendable, but the management of all this is muddled. I think the problem lies in the lack of balance between the need to present variations on horror movie tropes and the attempt to communicate some prominent socio-political themes. They just don’t fully connect together. Nevertheless, this shortcoming shouldn’t detract you from seeing the film. This is, at the end of the day, a very entertaining slice of modern horror.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3.5/5

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, Annapurna Pictures and Mike Zoss Productions)
Screenplay and direction by Joel and Ethan Coen. Featuring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill and Saul Rubinek.

This darkly humorous anthological film, released on Netflix late last year, is constructed of six parts that each deal with a different story from the American frontier. The stories are generally based around myths, legends and tales from the early days of American expansion, sometime between the late 18th Century and end of the 19th Century. You may have seen it all before – Hollywood has insistently perpetuated the myth of the Old West since its early days – but with the Coen brothers at the helm, you know you are in for something different. Although the end product is a tad underwhelming, the film is generally quite entertaining and full of little nuggets (Gold Rush pun intended!). In typical Coens’ fashion, the intent of each carefully delivered story is not always to share a convenient, linear path with a straight-forward moral at the end, but rather to layer it with challenging drama and deeply dark comedy. We laugh one minute, and then something occurs that confronts us and we wonder why we were laughing!

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The main strength of The Balled of Buster Scruggs are the array of characters put forth (mainly white males, it must be said). Although they embody a similar harshness emboldened by being out at the frontier, the characters have varying degrees of humanity – James Franco plays an empathetic and misguided young cowboy who is to be hung for robbing a bank, while Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill play sinister bounty hunters sitting in a stagecoach with a cohort of strangers. Harry Melling (famous for appearing in the Harry Potter films) plays a limbless man who is managed by a gruff and opportunistic Liam Neeson in a ‘show’ that sees him sit on a make-shift stage at the back of a wagon and orate a bizarre mixture of dialogue from Shakespeare to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Why he never interacts verbally with his master is never explained, but fascinating all the same. Tom Waits then steals the show with his performance as an old, scraggily and silver-bearded man, who has come with his donkey to the beautiful wilderness of the Mid-West to pan for gold. His internal struggle with loneliness, communicated through song, mumbles, and interactions with nature, is personified so well by the marvellous and ever-tortured Waits.

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However good the film is in parts, the Coens have a major problem here in engaging in stereotypes, specifically women and Native Americans. The hardest tale to digest involves the only woman to be primarily focussed on: Zoe Kazan plays a young pioneer on the Wagon Trail, whose fortunes take a turn for the worst when she wanders off to look for her little dog and is threatened by a party of armed ‘Indians’. The initial chuckles prompted by the whimsical dialogue quickly turn to feelings of dread and discomfort. There are two things to consider here: a woman is portrayed as naïve and unable to think independently, while Native Americans are portrayed as blood-thirsty rapists who mercilessly murder people and take their scalps. Why exactly does this need to be the case in a film like this? These are generalised tall-tales after all. I guess the only answer is that the Coen brothers are neither women nor Native Americans. Their focus is on what they know: the duality of white men. That in itself is worthy of making a film about. But in this day and age we expect better from the more powerful male film-makers out there. For example, could one of these stories not have been told from the point of view of a 19th Century Native American? Could the Coens not have allowed a woman to write or direct one of the vignettes? I guess not, as that would be too hard. But certainly a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging film.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3.5/5

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