There is a lot riding on Us. A great deal of expectations have been heaped upon Us. It may be a challenge to fully understand Us. We must try to make sense of Us! Wait, what?
Here Jordan Peele offers the promising-if-flawed movie that should have been his debut, before he demonstrated with Get Out how ingenious he really can be. Instead, he wowed the world straight out of the gate two years ago, guaranteeing that no follow-up could ever quite stack up to it. And the thing is, had Us actually been his debut, Peele still would have established himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, who commanded attention.
It’s only because Get Out became a cultural touchstone, became part of the American zeitgeist, that comparisons are inevitable. The substance of that film went far deeper than Us, although this film has plenty of its own subtext. It just doesn’t make as much sense.
To put it plainly, both movies have stories that hinge on preposterous concepts. At the very least, ridiculous though it was, the revelation of “what’s going on” in Get Out made some sense. I left Us feeling like I didn’t quite get it. But, I sure did like the journey getting there. This is an unusual experience.
One of the many fascinating things about Us is its almost pointed avoidance of any kind of racial issues. There is not so much as an acknowledgment of the very existence of racism in the entire movie. This is a glaring departure from Get Out. Clearly, though, in the Us universe, people of different races exist. It just happens that the family of the protagonist is black. Jordan Peele’s metaphors, which get a little more obtuse here, are aimed far more broadly. When the “evil twin” counterparts of this four-member family is asked who they are, the response is simply, “We’re Americans.”
Until a period of exposition near the end, a monologue meant to explain where these people come from and why they exist that can best be described as, “Huh?”, Us as a movie is uniquely compelling. We first meet the lead character, Adelaide, as a little girl who wanders off and into a carnival fun house mirror attraction. Even before that, our first glimpse of her is a bit of clever camera work: 1986 television commercials on a TV screen, one of them for the “Hands Across America” benefit (this later becomes a key plot point), fade to black for a moment — and we see young Adelaide’s reflection.
Moving to the present day, Adelaide has grown up into a woman played incredibly by Lupita Nyong’o; she has a husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke); they have two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They have come to a vacation house near the Santa Cruz beach of Adelaide’s youth, and after some establishing scenes to get to know this family, it’s not long at all before they are all under siege in their own house, by each of their doppelgangers, in an extended sequence that is uniquely creepy, if not outright terrifying. Given long sequences like this, Jordan Peele spends a lot of time in Us doing a lot with very few characters and actors — although a large amount of screen time does feature the same actors playing two parts in the same shot.
And this ultimately involves Adelaide and Gabe’s miserably married friends, played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, who have a couple teenage daughters of their own. The action moves over to their house, where new surprises present themselves, and things get really bloody.
The performances, to a person, are excellent. In countless cases, this includes wildly different performances by the same actor — particularly the case with Lupita Nyong’o, who gets the most screen time. It was not too long ago that any movie with this very same story would have featured a white family by default, and the protagonist absolutely would have been the dad. One great thing about Us is how casually it changes those trends. There is no particular political statement being made about it; this just happens to be a genre film — that being horror — in which, for instance, the protagonist just happens to be a woman. In fact, Gabe is kind of just a lovable dufus, a guy so square his teen daughter still rolls her eyes at him even in the midst of fighting off a murderous rampage.
That said, even as a much more straightforward genre film than Jordan Peel’s previous offering, Us is still more than just another horror movie. Its concept makes for some clever tag lines (“watch yourself”; “you are your own worst enemy”), and there are hints at something provocative under the surface. If Us has any real problem, it’s that its subtext never feels fully fleshed out. The intent there is always a bit cloudy.
Still, this is just a fantasy — albeit an especially dark fantasy, and an undeniably entertaining one. I tend to avoid horror films as a general rule, only occasionally making exceptions. In spite of what remains mystifying about it in the end, whatever exception anyone needs to make to see this movie, it’s worth doing. And if you’re already a horror fan? Frankly most horror films are so terrible that this one will shine as a beacon of high art.