Film Review: “Us”

NOTE: Because this film is a new release and because it’s best experienced without much prior info, I will be keeping this article free of spoilers as much as possible.

As a writer and storyteller, I have mad respect for Jordan Peele. After doing five years’ worth of brilliant and hilarious sketch comedy, where do you go next with your career? The obvious answer wouldn’t be “literally reinvent yourself as the 21st-century Rod Serling and take over pop culture with a near-flawless work of psychological horror as your big debut.” But in Peele’s case, it was the right answer.

Few films dominated 2017 as thoroughly as Get Out, Peele’s first time directing and writing a feature film. And rightfully so: it’s an unforgettable movie that weaves satire with suspense and has deep layers of subtext and mystery, earning Peele a much-deserved Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. With such an explosive debut, expectations were naturally high for whatever Peele would make next.

Us is Peele’s second feature film, and it proves that he’s not a one-hit wonder in the horror department. The satire and social commentary that characterized Get Out is put aside here in favor of a more conventional horror plot and tone. While the script may be weaker as a result, it makes up for that with stellar visuals, music and choreography. I doubt it will leave the mark on pop culture that its predecessor did, but people will be talking about it and admiring it nonetheless.

The Plot: In 1986, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) stumbled into a hall of mirrors under the Santa Cruz boardwalk and came face to face with a mysterious girl who looked exactly like her. The encounter haunts her well into adulthood, and she’s on edge when she reluctantly returns to Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her children Zora and Jason. It turns out she’s all too right to be apprehensive, as the family is assaulted in their vacation home by “the Tethered”: malicious, animalistic doppelgangers of themselves who are clad in red, wielding golden scissors and out for blood. The summer night becomes a gory battle for survival as the Wilsons band together to fight off their counterparts and escape the danger zone. But who are these doppelgangers, where did they come from, and what do they want? To find the answers, Adelaide must confront her childhood nightmare and the secret of what really happened in the hall of mirrors all those years ago…

As a horror film, Us fits neatly into what we might call the invasion subgenre, alongside classics like Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s familiar ground: monsters attack or infiltrate our modern-day society and must be defeated by heroes exemplifying the best values of America/Britain/whichever country made the film. Where Us breaks the mold in this regard is how it treats those monsters. First, the concept itself — you are the monster, making it hard to fight and even harder to acknowledge. Second, the amount of thought and effort that went into designing the Tethered and bringing them to life. They are visually distinctive with their bright red jumpsuits, single leather gloves and golden scissors. But it’s not just their appearance that creates an air of unreality. Their movements are disturbingly off-kilter and methodical, their vocalizations unrecognizable as human. And yet they are human, very much so. Adelaide’s twin, Red, is the only Tethered capable of true speech. She has a story to tell, one of tragedy and mistreatment and anger. The scene where she first encounters the Wilsons and explains her motives through a cryptic fairy tale about a princess and her shadow is one of the stand-out scenes in the film.

Us wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without its stellar cast. It’s an incredible undertaking, really. Every single actor is playing two characters, one of which is a warped, exaggerated reflection of the other. The film belongs to Nyong’o without question, however. Five years after her Oscar win for 12 Years A Slave, this is her first film as the undisputed lead, and it’s an opportunity long overdue. Watching her as both Adelaide and Red, you forget that this is a performance in a film. You’re just watching two women who are vastly different and yet the same baring their souls to one another even as they fight to the death. I imagine Nyong’o’s performance here will go down the same as Toni Collette’s performance in last year’s Hereditary: considered one of the year’s best, but ignored during awards season due to being from a “genre” film.

Another thing that sets Us apart from typical horror films and from Get Out is that it lets Peele show off his roots as a comedian. There’s actually quite a bit of humor in the movie. A lot of it comes from Winston Duke’s performance as Gabe, the dorky and bumbling patriarch of the Wilsons who has a smile and a joke for nearly every situation. It also partially comes from the Tylers, a white family that the Wilsons are acquainted with, who come off as a parody of the stereotypical sitcom family where everyone can barely stand each other. Even when we move past the first act and the Tethered start their killing spree, there are some great moments of black comedy, such as a brief scene where all four Wilsons are arguing over who has the highest “kill count” at that point in the film (spoiler alert: it’s a tie). I also got a somewhat guilty belly laugh out of one joke a few minutes earlier where an Alexa stand-in misinterprets its owner’s cry for help and gives a tonally inappropriate soundtrack to the carnage that immediately follows. Warning: there is a lot of blood in this movie. No clean white surface is safe.

In the weeks since the film’s release, there has been a lot of discussions and theorizing about what Peele is trying to say with this story. It’s not like Get Out, where the messages and metaphors are pretty clear. Us, in contrast, is a movie where it’s near impossible to pin one specific meaning to any of the symbolism. Nothing is clear from the surface: instead you have to dig deep to find the answers you want, and even then you might not get them. It’s a film that invites multiple viewings, close analysis and days’ worth of confusion. I’ve seen a few mixed/negative reviews of Us where the writer cited this confusion as one reason why they didn’t like the film. While I can understand feeling that way, I also think the cryptic nature of the story is part of what makes it so memorable and what will continue to fuel discussions about it. Is the deeper meaning a political one? Is it psychological? Does it mean anything at all? This is the kind of film we don’t really get anymore — not as a mainstream release, at least. We’re so used to having the big tentpole movies spoon-feed their ideas to us that when a movie doesn’t do that, it’s surprising and a bit discombobulating. I’m not going to go into detail about my interpretation of the film since that would require going into heavy spoilers, and the best way to see this film is to let the surprises and scares come at you.

You’ve probably seen Us already, but if you haven’t, then I absolutely recommend it. It’s a movie with great ideas, great performances and some great scares. Best of all, it’s a front-row seat to the continuing evolution of someone who’s becoming the next great director of our time.

That’s all for now! See you later!

— Dana

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