Review: Us (2019)
Jordan Peele’s Us was never going to live up to Get Out, a film that’s as close to an instant classic as has been produced in the past decade, but it does show the former sketch comedian making a strong case that his breakout directorial debut was no fluke. Centred on a family being terrorized by doppelgangers while on vacation in Santa Cruz, Us weaponizes a nightmarish vision of class warfare, where a literal underclass takes revenge upon the middle class that didn’t even know it existed. The film may run out of steam the more it explains its central conceit, but there’s compelling filmmaking here, as Peele plays with American iconography and horror movie conventions to rousing effect. If Us is not as satisfying as Get Out, it’s undoubtedly more ambitious.
Us begins in 1986, with young Adelaide (Madison Curry) on vacation with her parents along the Santa Cruz boardwalk. She wanders away from her inebriated father and into a hall of mirrors, where she comes across her identical double. We don’t see what happens to Adelaide after this encounter, but presumably it’s traumatic, leaving Adelaide temporarily mute and unable to process the horrors of what happened to her that hot summer night. Like the opening scene of Get Out, with Lakeith Stanfield’s Andre wandering through a ritzy neighbourhood at night while a car stalks him along the street, this opening sequence of Us clarifies the film’s tactics going forward, weaponizing our fear of shadows and sociopolitical fear of the Other to conjure its nightmare imagery.
The key difference in Peele’s approach in Us is that he relies more heavily on the visuals to tell the story here. Now working with Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer of It Follows, (as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent films, Split and Glass) Peele makes the opening of Us a visual feast, with a low-angle roaming camera aligning us with adolescent Adelaide’s perspective and a wide lens distorting the world around her, turning it into a looming presence of constant threat. Gioulakis, who weaponized off-screen space so wonderfully in It Follows, makes particularly excellent use of the hall of mirrors, confounding geography and turning every corner into a potential boobytrap. The collaboration between Peele and Gioulakis gives Us a greater visual confidence than Get Out and transforms this opening sequence into the film’s most chilling.
After this prologue, we flashforward to the present, and Adelaide is now a mother played by Lupita Nyong’o. She finds herself on vacation in Santa Cruz once again, this time with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). On the first evening, after some odd occurrences at the beach, she’s again terrorized by an identical double as a family of doppelgangers descend on their house in the middle of the night and take them captive. What follows over the next hour and a half is a mixture of home invasion thriller and conspiracy film, with Peele drawing out the reason behind the doppelgangers’ existence at the same time as he indulges in the crowd-pleasing tension of a confined-space horror film.
Peele is a product of cinephilia and pop-culture and plays on classic horror film iconography throughout Us, borrowing imagery from the many Invasion of the Body Snatchers adaptations, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and the aforementioned It Follows. He’s at his best when he’s playing on the uncanniness of the scenario, wielding doubling imagery like a cudgel to bludgeon the audience with. Us is definitely scarier than Get Out in terms of conventional horror movie thrills, but it’s greatest pleasures are in Peele’s expert manipulation of the audience.
Like Hitchcock and one-time celebrated wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan, Peele seems to have a preternatural ability to predict what an audience is expecting in any given scene, play into that expectation to hook them, and then twist it to surprise or scare them. If the crowd I saw Us with is any indication of Peele’s talent in this regard, he’s already nearing the maestro-stage. Once the family of doppelgangers descend upon the driveway of Adelaide and Gabe’s vacation home, the crowd was hooked right through to the film’s end.
However, like Shyamalan, Peele tends to overreach in his thematic storytelling. While Get Out was a perfect example of a horror conceit working hand-in-hand with social commentary because the conceit was so clear and specific, Us, with its mixture of logical ambiguity and later nonsensical exposition, loses the thread of its commentary. Or rather, it tries to comment on no less than the entire makeup of the United States, starting with its references to Hands Across America and Michael Jackson and culminating with Adelaide’s doppelganger proudly declaring in her husking whisper that “We are Americans.” The film’s title is nakedly meant to point audiences in this direction, as it’s Us, as in U.S., the United States. The film’s social commentary is intriguing, but doesn’t add up by film’s end.
In a case similar to many recent horror films, Peele cannot help but over-explain or over-literalize his central conceit, with late revelations explaining the doppelgangers’ presence as well as Adelaide’s own connection to them. It’s a matter of too much, or not enough, as both a more ambiguous approach, which plays with the doppelgangers as pure extrapolations of human fear, ala It Follows, or a more fleshed-out final explanation for the doppelgangers that resolves all the gaps in the film’s logic, ala Rosemary’s Baby, would be more satisfying in the end.
Again, the ending reminded me of a Shayalaman film, where I was taken with the expert storytelling and evocative imagery, but a little disappointed with the director going one step too far in trying to make his point. The late revelations of Us force you to reconsider everything that came before, but only a second viewing will reveal whether that reconsideration is to the film’s benefit or not. At least I can bask in the fact that, like Shyamalan, Peele is an expert pop filmmaker.
If his ideas need a bit more refinement, his filmmaking remains exceptionally entertaining. He knows how to play an audience. Whether he can become as much an expert in his thematic explorations as his pop storytelling remains to be seen.
7 out of 10
Us (2019, USA)
Written and directed by Jordan Peele; starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker.