Film Reviews

My Spoiler-Lite Reaction to Jordan Peele’s Us

If you despise spoilers of any kind and just want to know my general opinion of Us, skip the review and jump to THE BOTTOM LINE below. If, however, you don’t mind some lite spoilers – like a description of something specific Elisabeth Moss does with her face or a general examination of the film’s themes – then keep reading.

There’s a wonderful moment in the Shudder documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror where directors Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood) and Ernest Dickerson (Tales from the Hood: Demon Knight) joke about Get Out’s opening scene: “Lakeith, walking down a sidewalk in a suburban neighborhood at night by himself, just talking on his cell phone? Shit, I’ve been there. It’s the perfect black horror story.”

“Perfect black horror story,” indeed. Jordan Peele remade Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a horror movie from the black guy’s point of view and it absolutely worked. That’s partially why Get Out became the type of breakthrough scary movie watched by a lot of people who don’t normally like scary movies.

Us, Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort, is a different beast. There’s no real “shit, I’ve been there” moment to be found. The commentary is less specific to race and more broadminded, preaching “we are our own worst enemy” in more ways than one. The horror elements are far more in your face, with plenty of “stay in the car and lock the doors!” and “he’s right behind you!” shouts from the characters and “no, don’t go in there you idiot!” cries from the audience.

It’s a technically more accomplished piece of filmmaking and shows that even though Peele won an Oscar for Get Out’s script he’s not high on his own legend yet. Get Out, as great as it is, has some slight tonal issues with Lil Rel Howery’s broad comedy scenes away from the plot rubbing awkwardly against Daniel Kaluuya’s horror scenes. Us, by contrast, is far better at integrating comedy with its horror and shows Peele’s knack for knowing exactly when to scare us and when to ease up on the tension and make us laugh. I’d argue he might actually lean just a tad too heavily on the comedy here, but the jokes made me laugh every time. So, who am I to complain?

However, Get Out’s overall story formula – hit us with the familiar before pulling the rug out from under us with a premise-altering twist – is repeated here to lesser effect. Once we know the secret behind the strangeness of Allison Williams’ family in Get Out, the film gains a considerable new thematic depth and power. The same can’t be said of Us. The big idea underpinning everything just isn’t quite as compelling and strains credulity even more.

To be clear, the twist? Not the thing you’ve already seen in the trailers! It’s something which comes much later.

The plot: A black family on vacation at their seaside summer home think they’re about to endure their own version of The Strangers or Straw Dogs when a group of hostile strangers appear in their driveway and refuses to leave.

Just a small note here: These two pictures have been lightened, not by me. The actual scene is much, much darker in the film.

Except, shocker, these home invaders aren’t random, masked sickos – they’re exact doppelgangers of the family members, mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), dad Lakeith (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright), and young son Jason (Evan Alex).

“They’re us,” Jason says in absolute terror.

As each family member squares off against their own evil doppelganger, the film gets a lot of mileage out of assuming, “It’s pretty much inherently horrifying to have to fight someone who looks just like you, right?” Which, sure. A little. However, the family fighting off their evil twins doesn’t take up nearly as much screen time as you might expect, and even when they are around there’s still the inescapable question looming over everything:

Where did these doppelgangers come from? What do they want? And what exactly are they? When asked that last question, Adelaide’s evil other says in a rather on-the-nose thematic hatip “we are Americans,” but we know an actual explanation is waiting for us later in the story.

Except “we are Americans” does about sum it up. As IndieWire argued, “Us is through the looking glass horror that asks how Americans are going to live with ourselves after being reminded of who we really are.”

I don’t know if Peele totally pulls off that message. Us is a horror movie whose horror sequences are far more entertaining than its eventual “and this is what it all means” ending. However, Peele does more than enough to ensure the film still holds together.

He’s helped in that process by a powerhouse central performance from Lupita Nyong’o and an unforgettable turn from Elisabeth Moss in a small supporting role. Moss pulls off a contorted, completely silent half-tortured cry/half-maniacal laugh thing that rival’s Betty Gabriel’s smile-crying in Get Out. No one’s stealing this movie from Nyong’o, though. Her dual work as Adelaide and Adelaide’s evil other mesmerizes from beginning to end.

THE BOTTOM LINE

With Get Out, Jordan Peele turned a horror movie into an Oscar winner with immediate and obvious social relevance; with Us, he’s turned a horror movie into…well, a horror movie with a somewhat muddled message about the power we have as individuals or as a people to destroy ourselves and ostracize the “other.” It’s a very different kind of movie than Get Out and its message doesn’t land quite as strongly. However, it’s the perfect movie for the moment and anyone who sees it will walk away worshipping at the altar of Lupita Nyong’o, if they aren’t already.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

  1. Post-credits alert: There is NO post-credits scene, not that horror movies normally have those.
  2. Easter egg hunting: Pay attention to the VHS tapes next to a TV in an early scene.
  3. I’ve heard an argument that Us is Jordan Peele’s Unbreakable – a more complex, but more accomplished second film after a somewhat more conventional, financially successful inaugural effort. The mainstream kid likes the first one, but the true connoisseur will truly appreciate the second. I think that vastly oversimplifies things. What about you?

On first viewing, perhaps the full power of Us hasn’t sunk in for me yet or I have simply failed to truly appreciate the dramatic power of the film’s central metaphor. Or maybe others agree with me that Peele’s effort to bridge between story and theme isn’t as smoothly executed as it should be. Either way,  if you agree or disagree with my review let me know in the comments.

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8 comments

  1. My wife and I are…of two minds *rimshot* about this as well. She says she liked Get Out better, I say Us blows it away. I just love crazy elaborately synchronistic stories like this. Lupita really was amazing too.

    1. That’s awesome, though, because Us is so the type of horror movie you want to talk about afterward. You want to see it with friends or a wife or whatever and just debate its themes or nitpick its plot afterward or…as so many of us are…compare it to Get Out. I side with your wife on this argument about Get Out being better, but a lot of people side with you.

      The one thing everyone agrees on, from what I’ve seen at least: Lupita kills in this movie, figuratively and literally.

  2. Great review!

    I actually agree with you, the story here is not as compelling as in Get out, and the screenplay has its problems (although the humor works great!).

    1. For me, Us – oddly – is a more conventionally entertaining horror movie than Get Out, but Peele’s similar effort to transition from story to theme doesn’t work as well. He guarantees that audiences will walk away still wondering, “So, wait, what was the deal with the people underground? What was with all the bunnies?’ He trusts his themes and metaphors to carry the day, and I appreciate what he is trying to say – it just seems a tad sloppy when compared to Get Out. I have seen so many horror movies about “people down there” – CHUD, Death Line, etc. I am willing to accept the usage of them as metaphors for others as it makes sense in the story. Nuclear waste babies, forgotten/caved in subway workers forced to become cannibals….awesome. Got it. But, abandoned clones of every single American and their souls are tethered to our’s meaning they just constantly mimic our actions? That’s a pretty damn big leap.

      1. You are totally right! And exactly at what point are clones created? How come they are as fat/slim as their copies with a 100% bunny-based diet? Why do they mimic the movements of the copies but not all the time?

        Too many questions!!!

  3. I have not been able to stop thinking about this film since I saw it. The exectution is brilliant, but the way tha Peele layered meaning is fantastic. There’s the idea that you touched on of fighting onelse and loooking at our horrific other image. But there is also the idea that sticks with me most which is the examination of privilege and how much those who lack privilege will fight to achieve it. How privilege is often taken for granted. And how so many of the people in this country who are American are seen as lesser monstrous and literally forgotten about living facsimiles of a life that mirrors the one of privilege, but is inherently not. Yet, they live on and enjoy relegated to this lower class until someone helps bring them from it.

    1. I’m glad you shared this because it points to something a lot of people have been really feeling about this movie. Obviously, from my review, I didn’t quite there emotionally with the story. I was more caught up in the logic of it, but the thematic argument about our treatment of “the other” is certainly of-the-moment and extremely haunting for some people. Us is really a movie that literalizes that old chestnut every parent used to tell their child, the “before your judge, try to imagine yourself in that situation.” Face to face with your own, underprivileged, discarded doppelganger, how do you react? It’s already enough to make us question who is right and who is wrong in the scenario. Add on the last-second twist with Lupita…that cements it even further.

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