Creepy and Creepier

‘Us’ & The Brink’
Steve Bannon in The Brink (Magnolia Pictures)

Jordan Peele’s 2017 smash debut, Get Out, was the rare film that manages to be absurd, hilarious, and deadly serious all at once. Like an even bigger hit of that year, Black Panther, Get Out refracted a racial critique through an unlikely genre. Taking a trope from our national discussion about race—the black body—Peele deployed it literally, placing his guileless black protagonist in the path of predatory whites, encapsulating the peril and outrage of African-American history in a B-level thriller knockoff that piled layers of irony on the notion of “black humor.” Like Get Out, Peele’s new effort, Us, explores existence on two levels—the seemingly real world, and a hidden or sunken place below, where an underlying evil resides. Once again it is an evil not beamed in from some other dimension, but born in our own human one, and actualizing dire realities latent in American life. As in his prior film, Peele concocts all this in volatile mixtures of humor and horror.

Us follows the Wilsons, an upper-middle-class family comprising Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke), and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), on a summer weekend at their California vacation home. Sounds like fun, yet all is not well with the Wilsons. The problem is set forth in a prelude flashing back to a night in 1986, when the young Adelaide accompanies her parents to the waterfront amusement park in Santa Cruz. Entering a funhouse over whose door hangs a sign reading “Find Yourself,” she sees herself reflected in a distorting hall of mirrors, then bumps up against what seems to be an actual, live doppelgänger. Is this a waking dream, or has something uncanny occurred?

The sequence unsettles via a deft orchestration of creepy elements: the ground-up viewpoint of the child; an approaching thunderstorm; parental disaffection; a haunting whistling of “Itsy Bitsy Spider”; the appearance of a haggard homeless man, holding a sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11.” The result is ominous, and when we jump back ahead to the grown Adelaide, exhibiting wary reluctance to revisit that same amusement park, we share her jitters. The first half-hour of the film, setting up the weirdness to come, is near perfect; Peele makes good use of the Wilsons’ bland domestic tranquility and the happy aimlessness of their chatter; nothing important is being said because everything important is about to happen. The pacing prepares for the hinge moment, when Jason looks out the window at night and announces: “Dad, there’s a family in our driveway.”

There is, indeed. Embodying the mirroring prefigured in the funhouse sequence, the family in the drive (major spoilers coming!) turns out to be a nightmare replication of the Wilsons themselves. Their appearance—standing silent and still as statues—personifies the warning quoted from Jeremiah (“Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them”), and soon enough the eerie visitors launch a brutal home invasion. Adelaide’s doppelganger speaks in a croaking, thwarted, and thoroughly evil-sounding voice; the other family doubles merely grunt and howl. At first we believe only the Wilsons are under attack, but it turns out that the malevolent doubles are part of a mass uprising of similar red-clad phantoms—calling themselves “the Tethered”—wreaking bloody havoc across the land, hunting down their human doubles and savagely killing them. 

Jordan Peele collaborated in the current iteration of The Twilight Zone, and he has acknowledged a 1960 episode of that series, “Mirror Image,” as an influence on Us. There are other clear influences: The Shining; Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Michael Haneke’s terrifying home-invasion movie, Funny Games; and more than a touch of Tarantino, including throwaway comic lines and quotations from other films in the midst of bloodletting. Throw in an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, season with a hint of the classic 1960s series The Prisoner (a secret world underlying ours and run by a cabal of hidden forces), and voilà: what we get is the work of a writer-director who’s obviously a film and TV buff. At some of the most fraught moments we sense that Peele is having fun, enjoying himself in the act of making horror, as it were; the pleasure is infectious, as are the chills. 

The theme of the doppelgänger has deep roots in literature, and eerie Victorian literature especially: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde; Poe’s story “William Wilson,” where a boy is haunted by a doppelganger who can speak only in a whisper; Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, where the double is a portrait that registers the protagonist’s inner moral decline. The theme has also intrigued high-art writers like Nabokov; one of his most celebrated and challenging novels, Pale Fire, paired a long poem with an even longer (and possibly delusional) commentary on it. The novelistic and cinematic uses of doppelgängers reflect their prevalence in folklore, where they often possess a malicious nature, and have lent themselves to interpretations ranging from omens of ill luck to psychology’s division of the conscious and unconscious self. All this suggests a deep hold on our imagination, and at its best Us hits with the force of myth.

It doesn’t remain so forceful. The second half of the film loses its way, partly via such obscurities as a baffling use of the Hands Across America campaign, which appears in scenes of Adelaide’s childhood and foreshadows a later image of the Tethered, hundreds of them, standing arm in arm in a daisy-chain extending down the beach and into the ocean, visually suggesting a border wall. Is Us about Trump’s America and the heartless demand to Build the Wall? Do the doppelgängers represent an indictment of a country where wealth divides its citizens into the vibrantly alive (enjoying the cushy lifestyle of the Wilsons) and the impoverished, a kind of economic walking dead?  Is the movie an allegory—and if so, of what? (And what’s up with those rabbits?)

One grasps at meanings, and Peele’s attempt to sort them out involves a good deal of screen-splaining, especially in one scene where Adelaide’s double provides a miniature lecture on “the Tethered.” All in all, there’s a problem with scope and scale; Us can’t decide whether it should be a small compact thing or a big sprawling epic thing. I kept feeling it should have been an episode, Twilight-Zone-style. Rod Serling’s original “Mirror Image” depicted a woman waiting for a bus on a lonely night, who keeps catching unnerving glimpses of her doppelgänger and becomes obsessed with the notion that “two parallel worlds that exist side by side, and each of us has a counterpart in this other world.” Serling didn’t write it for any more than that, a small metaphysical and psychological novelty, and I wish Peele had found a way to keep his own conception similarly deft.

Get Out had the advantage of constantly working on two levels of meaning—as nightmare horror movie, and as trenchant meditation on racism. Us relinquishes such sturdy moorings and floats free, becoming—to use a key word from the film itself—a bit untethered.

 

Though no longer working for Trump, Bannon is still doing Trump’s work, agitating tirelessly for the “economic nationalism” that he clearly views as the president’s legacy—and his own brand.

Alison Klayman’s documentary The Brink chronicles a year in the life of former Trump guru and Breitbart chief Steve Bannon. The film covers the period from the fall of 2017, with Bannon recently dismissed from his post in the White House, to the 2018 midterm election results, which posed a setback to his nationalist causes.

Shot without talking heads or commentary, The Brink is the kind of documentary biopic whose protagonist proceeds in the complacent belief that as long as he’s simply himself, the result will be flattering. The film starts with Bannon sitting in a messy room at the D.C. row house known as The Breitbart Embassy, boasting about a 2016 movie he directed. “That was my craziest film,” he says to someone offscreen. “What was the title of it again? Was it Torchbearer? The Torchbearers?” Strange, that a director would not recall the title of his own recent work. What Bannon does recall is his impression of his own excellence, and especially with scenes shot at the sites of former Nazi death camps. “My shit in Auschwitz rocked,” he says with a grin. Oops! So much for letting Bannon be Bannon.

Though no longer working for Trump, Bannon is still doing Trump’s work, agitating tirelessly for the “economic nationalism” that he clearly views as the president’s legacy—and his own brand. We see him at GOP fundraisers, inveighing against “fake news and fake media” and announcing that “economic nationalism is what binds us together.” “Nobody cares about your race, your religion, your gender, your sexual preference,” he tells his audience; “you’re a citizen of the United States—that’s what [Trump] cares about.” (Later the right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen makes an address, in French, that uses Bannon’s speech line for line.) We see Bannon chortling with assorted Trump acolytes and wannabes; “I was hoping that Trump would sign my belly,” gushes one Congressional candidate who was pregnant during her campaign. Stumping for Roy Moore at so-called Patriot Dinners, Bannon complains that “the Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post did the hit on Billy Bush...and the hit on Roy.” And channeling his former boss’s modus operandi, he revels in taunting a female heckler with a smirking gibe—“I want to thank one of my ex-wives for showing up; I thought my lawyer sent that alimony check!”—as the audience roars.

Some critics, including Richard Brody of the New Yorker, have argued that The Brink inadvertently lionizes Steve Bannon. It is true that the film reveals a man with a functioning sense of humor, comfortable in front of a hostile crowd. “Thanks, Mom,” he quips when a lone person applauds in an audience in Toronto, where he is debating David Frum; the audience laughs, and afterward the ex-Goldman president John Thornton tells Bannon “they were kind of shocked that you’re a nice guy.” And Klayman provides an almost amusing portrayal of Bannon as international political mastermind, flying by private jet all over Europe as we see news summaries of the rise of right-wing nationalist parties and leaders in France, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Hungary—many of whom Bannon consults during the summer of 2018, when he makes a right-wing Grand Tour, in the hope of setting up a populist European foundation to rival George Soros’s liberal one.

It is true also that in Bannon one sees traces of an actual political thinker, who raises legitimate questions. “The elites in our country are comfortable with managing our decline,” he says in one speech. “Globalization has happened with no concern for social costs or civic society... all for the benefit to [corporate] equity.” There is a real issue here, as there is with the question of what might constitute some semblance of national unity in a country as diverse as the United States. But always, with Bannon, these questions stall in the dead-end of an airless pseudo-populism, as the man reveals himself to be little more than an operator and provocateur. On the lecture circuit he refers to the election of Trump as “divine Providence,” while taking every chance to champion—and to incite—“the deplorables.” The hour-long film he makes for the 2018 midterms, Trump at War, showcases Trump in best demagogic form, shouting, “The United States has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems. They’re laughing at us! We’re fighting a war!” Pressed by a reporter about whether his film is propaganda, Bannon offers a coy smile and muses, “Hmmm, how would Leni Riefenstahl do that scene?”

In September 2018 he goes to Venice to attend the opening of an Errol Morris documentary about him. But with the midterm elections fast approaching, and tactical worries pressing in, Bannon skips the movie and hunkers down in his hotel “war room” instead. There, he spends five days launching phone tirades and plotting strategies, all the while slurping Red Bull and occasionally pausing to glower out the window toward gondolas on the canal below, where vacationing humans are enjoying themselves. Klayman asks him if he’s sacrificing his personal life in order to promote Donald Trump as a historical figure and transformational president. “Well, what is a personal life, anyway?” Bannon responds, gruffly. “I’ve had golf and things like that. But this life is so fulfilling for me, I can’t think about other stuff. What else would I be doing?” 

Everything he is doing seems geared to maximizing his political influence—including, presumably, agreeing to this documentary. “Trump taught me a lesson,” Bannon reflects. “There’s no bad media. The more the mainstream media gets obsessed with something, it’s gonna be your biggest weapon.” The critique of The Brink leveled by Richard Brody and others holds that the film puts another weapon in Bannon’s arsenal. I disagree. Throughout, we see him eagerly aligning himself with some of the world’s most unsavory leaders: enthusing over a meeting with Philippine strongman Duterte; commiserating with a visiting Nigel Farage about “the enemy within”; calling Hungary’s right-wing president, Viktor Orbán, “one of my heroes.” At the personal level, The Brink shows us a chronically belligerent man given to profligate hyperbole and an avidly conspiratorial mindset. Are these actual traits, or mere tactics? Certainly Bannon seems happiest when he’s darkest. When the Times publishes the op-ed written by “a member of the Resistance” inside the Trump Administration, he goes into overdrive. “We’ve had a coup d’état in the United States,” he rambles. “It’s a team of people. It’s Huntsman, Brian Hook, Dan Coates, Mulvaney—it’s a whole pack of them!” Ensconced in his room in Venice, he sits brooding, fomenting, phoning, and fulminating, sporadically releasing steam by belittling his aides (“engage your fucking brain!”).

“This film is gonna crush me,” Bannon says at one point, grinning at the camera.  Maybe. Of course, for anyone on my side of things, Bannon hardly needed crushing. As for his—and Trump’s—fans, they’re more likely to watch the film and say, “He crushed it!” That’s what irks progressives like Richard Brody. They seem to want a film that will portray a Bannon so evil, it will separate him from his followers. But if the last four years show anything, it’s that this never happens; you’re never going to win that argument. People see what they want to see, no matter what you show them, and as a result, our political discourse has become almost wholly a matter of preaching to the choir. You can’t blame Klayman for that. What I see is pretty scary. Some creepy movies succeed by trafficking in every sort of imaginary monster. But Bannon’s the real deal.

Published in the May 17, 2019 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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