Film Review: Us
Jordan Peele Solidifies His Horror Chops, But Has Trouble Trusting His Audience
Us, writer and director Jordan Peele’s followup to 2017’s Oscar-winning Get Out, cements the filmmaker’s well-deserved reputation as horror’s “next big thing.” A whirlwind of humor, thrills, and creepy imagery, the film is a living denial of the sophomore slump, even if it never reaches the airtight highs of his debut. Along with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) and a tour de force cast, Peele supplies a gorgeously crafted narrative and bracing social commentary, but also falls short of true greatness with his penchant for hand-holding and blunt-force messaging. Mild spoilers ahead…
Watching Us unfold, it’s easy to see why Jordan Peele is hyperbolically touted as “the next Hitchcock.” Even though I’m loathe to hail anyone as “the next” anything - a Jordan Peele film is first and foremost a Jordan Peele film - the comparison is an apt one. Just like Get Out, Us is a perfect storm of horror, acting, and social commentary: a beautiful dark mirror that conveys a confidence seldom seen in sophomore efforts. The film, however, is also bigger, badder, and grander than its predecessor, which comes with its own set of idiosyncrasies that aren’t handled quite as elegantly as his Oscar-winning debut. While Get Out’s intimate scale expertly disguises its exposition and amplifies its commentary on race, Us enjoys no such luxury, and Peele’s inability to allow his audience to grasp the film’s themes on its own stifles the story’s effectiveness.
After a haunting opening crawl, establishing the existence of thousands of miles of abandoned underground tunnels in the United States, Us begins with a masterful sequence on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. In 1986, the time of Thriller and Hands Across America, a little girl (Madison Curry) strays from the glow of carnival lights and her parents’ side; beset by curiosity and a series of eerie coincidences, she finds her way into the hall of mirrors, eventually coming face-to-face with her horrifying doppelgänger. Right off the bat, Peele, along with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Split), imbue the film with an ominous magnetism. With Gioulakis extrapolating tricks from his storied filmography, Us is gorgeous and arresting: from POV shots to slow dollies to a rotating pan borrowed from It Follows, the film is a paragon of fear-inducing mood. Its use of color is especially effective, with stark contrasts and meaningful symbolism that anchors the movie’s visuals. And while much of the film takes place at night, its composition is always crystal clear, with its rich blacks foreshadowing an almost primordial threat looming behind the ordinary lives of our protagonist family. The little girl, bearing severe emotional scars from her encounter on that beach, grows up to be Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), a successful family woman complete with husband Gabe (walking dad joke Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright and Evan Alex). On a summer getaway to the California coast, the family is jovial and carefree, but Adelaide can’t shake a bubbling dread that recalls her fateful beach nightmare. Us forgoes the slow-burn of a lurking threat, realizing our heroine’s worst fears relatively quickly as her and her family’s vacation is abruptly ended by the arrival of The Tethered: bizarro versions of the Wilsons clad in red and armed with razor-sharp shears.
“Just like Get Out, Us is a perfect storm of horror, acting, and social commentary; a beautiful dark mirror that conveys a confidence seldom seen in sophomore efforts.”
Clearly as much of an actor’s showcase as a horror film, Us boasts some top-notch performances. With every cast member pulling double duty, we get some Orphan Black levels of versatility on display - the humans are charming and relatable, their mirror selves are feral and terrifying. And as much as Winston Duke mugs with hilarious dad jokes, the focus is on Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide and her counterpart Red, the only member of the Tethered that speaks. One can see why she is front and center among the cast: a shapeshifting force of nature, the actress commands attention whichever skin she's inhabiting at the moment: from loving mother to scarred survivalist to deranged killer, Nyong’o is a revelation.
Us, being a Jordan Peele film, is also loaded with social allegory. And while it may not come with the snap-fit of Get Out’s commentary on race in the United States, the film does have poignant things to say when it comes to the dichotomy of our national identity. The allegory makes sense, but is ultimately undermined by Peele’s need to explain it to us. Red, when asked who she is in her first moments on screen, rasps, “We’re Americans.” As if the motif of dark mirror images and Hands Across America weren’t enough, it’s a line that shatters the fiction with its heavy-handedness. Just like a magic trick, a film’s metaphor that has to be explained is robbed of its mystique and elegance, with the bigger shame being that it was one that never needed to be clarified in the first place. The same goes for the story’s big third act reveal; Us’ grand twist isn’t particularly surprising, but like all good swerves, it can be seen as a natural terminus for our characters that simultaneously recolors our perspective of the entire film. Masterful as it is, it’s also accompanied by a frustrating exposition dump, a wholly unnecessary hand-holding that deflates the entire ending, even if it is shot in a cool-as-hell split diopter shot. Jordan Peele’s penchant for exposition is more of a bad habit than a fatal flaw, holding Us back from being one for the ages, but still allowing him to demonstrate his mastery of the genre. The audience is smarter than Peele gives credit for, and a little trust in its ability to read between the lines would go a long way.
This review has been serious business so far, but I’d be remiss not to mention just how fun the movie is - full of laughs, horror-tinged slapstick, and genuine thrills, Us is just a good time in general. The film is also perfect for horror and non-horror fans alike. Chock full of non-intrusive Easter eggs and witty references, longtime horror nuts will have a field day; and for those looking to dip their toes in the genre’s sanguine pool, it is the perfect gateway film that will stimulate the adrenal centers of the brain without triggering any heart attacks. Us, even with its flaws, cements Jordan Peele as not just a horror film auteur, but as a talented filmmaker in general. For an entertainer that was in sketch comedy only a few short years ago, Peele is two for two as a director, with both films being completely original works - a remarkable achievement in this age of adaptations and cinematic universes. Us may stumble with its on-the-nose exposition, but it swings for the fences where it counts: as an affecting amalgamation of suspense, humor, and cultural commentary.