Us - Review
Jordan Peele widens his microscope, and in turn blurs the most enthralling aspects of his story.
Us is a genre-film bro’s film. It opens with white text, includes a prolonged title sequence, and tells a story that is equal parts Shyamalan and Hitchcock. Despite what film twitter and the general consensus has proliferated, however, Us is not the bar-raising triumph of Get Out, nor the Hitchcockian rip-off so many are primed to label it as. It’s a beautifully directed, shot, and acted horror film that trips over itself so many times in the final third, there’s no avoiding its bruises.
Us begins with a masterclass in visual storytelling. Jumping between two timelines, one in the 1980s, the other in 2019, the film never skips a beat in reminding us what decade we’re in. It mercifully avoids cliches, such as in-the-moment music or vapid trends, instead pining for a 21st century family dynamic that will never cease to inspire warm and awkward memories. Winston Duke’s Gabe does the heavy lifting, interjecting the perfect dose of humor into otherwise tense scenes with his lovable-dad trope character. This is, of course, nothing new in the horror scene: directors have been making people laugh at horror since the medium’s origin, but Peele remains one of the finest to pull it off: the jokes, the timing, all superbly organized to prop up the next scene, and never used as a crutch for a poor one. They are set-ups, preparing for a punchline that elicits a much different reaction. In this way, Us strikes a similar nerve to Peele’s Get Out. Humor is used in good taste, and delivered in a way that serves the moment, rather than provide a failsafe.
As a director, second films can be a gauntlet. Criticism, judgement, and popular attention are increased exponentially, especially after the film preceding it won an Oscar. And as a director, Peele proves that he has just as much to offer to the horror genre as an Ari Aster or M. Night Shyamalan. That may sound like an odd comparison, but Us draws more from Shyamalan’s thriller roots than anything Peele has dabbled in post Key and Peele. Of course, those roots are grown from the soil of Hitchcock, Romero, and Carpenter, but given the amount of horror buzz Us has received, it’s shocking how few have pointed out that it’s actually a thriller. There are few genuine, Hereditary-esque scares, the kind that make you feel ugly on your drive home: Us makes you feel like there’s someone behind you, ready to take your place should you turn around. Terrifying, certainly, but not dread-inducing.
The film begins moving with an incredible sequence involving a copy-cat family breaking into the Wilson summer residence in Santa Cruz, California: no motive, no explanation. They’re just there. As the identicals face each other, the film reaches its zenith: there is no reason for this to be happening; it’s pure fantasy. The dopplegangers sport red jumpsuits, brown gloves, and golden scissors. Why? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that the audience is stuck, as frozen as Lupita Nyong'o's character, chained to a table. Her struggle isn’t so much to break free, but to make her captivity a strength, mining tension from the macro. Us’s mistake is that it lets us off the chain. After the first hour or so, things begin to ratchet up significantly. Massive plots are exposed, timelines begin to coalesce, and the editor has a field day. After the tone-setting introduction, Us quickly expands its view into a world-wide, infestation-like conundrum. This immediately distances us from the central characters, made small players in a world full of larger-than-life problems (minor spoilers ahead). In one of the silliest turn-of-events, it is revealed that underneath America there are miles of abandoned subway tunnels, filled with rabbits. And people, the doppelgangers that we see spreading their hands across America (we’ll get to that), created and forced underground by unnamed scientists. An experiment gone wrong, an effort to clone the human race abandoned due to lack of humanity in the dopplegangers.
This is delivered in a chill-inducing monologue, in which the evil Adelaide (Nyong’o) distributes her master plan to the real Adelaide (or so we think). It may be the best frame in the film, shot in Persona-like conditions with one face in the background, obscured by a much larger portion of a face in the foreground, but it’s also the moment where Us falls on itself. After spending a good hour and a half ignoring reality and indulging in the terror of unmitigated violence, Us injects an explanation, and fast. The air goes out, and as the film putters out its last 15 minutes (salvaged by a truly great twist), one can’t help but wonder why Peele felt the need to explain the dopplegangers’ presence. The same feeling arrives earlier in the film, when the Wilson’s neighbors (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) are murdered by their own doubles. Moss is horrifying in her facial expressions, as usual, but Heidecker lays on the goofy. He goes from invincible killing machine to douche in a second, relieving the scene of tension, though it does make for a good nervous laugh. Us never recovers from this imbalance of fantasy and reality, making its final shot difficult to see as anything other than a misguided attempt at adding another layer to a far-more interesting personal journey.
Us doesn’t check every box, but there is a palpable sense of intrigue to every corner of Jordan Peele’s gorgeous nightmare. Its first half is as scary as anything that’s come out this decade, more on par with Funny Games than Get Out, and though it stumbles hard in the context of its story, there’s no denying that Us is another solid step for Peele, who, hopefully, is just scratching the surface of his talents.