Us

Gabe: What are you people?
Red: We… are Americans!

This was a weird movie. Weird, but a lot of fun.

Jordan Peele had quite a task ahead of him with succeeding his directorial debut, the Oscar-winning horror film Get Out. That was a superbly tight and effective movie with a very novel premise and a unique commentary on race.

Us does have something of a commentary, albeit one that’s a bit more abstract than Get Out’s, but plays more like a prototypical scary movie. The first 45 minutes to an hour feels very much in the vein of movies standard to the home invasion sub-genre. Think Funny Games without the pretentious scolding, or The Strangers without the utter despair. Later on, though, I started getting a twisted Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe.

However, Us has a far more interesting gimmick than most home invasion thrillers.

It centers around the Wilsons, a normal African-American family whose vacation to Santa Cruz takes an abrupt turn when they find themselves confronted by another African-American family who happen to look exactly like them. Only they’re not normal, and they certainly aren’t friendly; although, they too are on a vacation of sorts. The film’s premise of doppelgängers really intrigued me from the first trailer, and I was glad to see that it took that idea and ran with it.

As the Wilsons do battle with their dark opposites, we begin to discover along with them that this terror goes way beyond their family. And that there might be more meaning to the film’s title than it appears.

Us may not be as novel or unique as Get Out, but it contains a lot of what gripped me about that movie. The primary thing that stands out is Jordan Peele’s vivid understanding of what’s creepy and unsettling; this comes through even in Key & Peele’s sketch comedy. He knows how to get under the skin and create an atmosphere of nightmarish dread, which is conveyed through a brilliant mix of dialogue, visual imagery, editing, music and sound design.

I also appreciate Peele’s ability to intertwine drama and terror with a fair bit of dark comedy. It’s a bit like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods in the way horror and humor go hand in hand in this film, although it’s not nearly as meta as either of those.

Probably the one element that will be unanimously praised about this movie is the acting. The film does a good job of establishing each of the central family’s quirks and making us invest in them in a way few horror movies do, then turning it on a dime by having them play the dual roles of their bone-chilling doubles.

Lupita Nyong’o is particularly mesmerizing. Both of them. As the main protagonist, Adelaide, she manages to capture that same alert, fear-stricken vulnerability that was so striking about Daniel Kaluuya’s acting in Get Out, while infusing it with this raw ferocity. As the antagonist, Red, her use of a low, rasping voice and eerily precise movements creates this uncanny valley effect that helps bring to life a truly haunting character that is just fascinating to watch. Some have likened Nyong’o’s work here to Toni Collette’s standout performance in Hereditary last year, a comparison I fully agree with; which reminds me, I need to see about doing a review for Hereditary.

It’d be wrong of me to only highlight the film’s pros without acknowledging the cons as well. Let's start off with a minor flaw, which is that, even though it's a scary movie, the film doesn't rely on scares; its juice really comes from just how weird and creepy it feels. As other reviewers have likely pointed out, there’s a rather blatant exposition dump near the end, and the movie might have been better served if that was either cut down or excised completely for the sake of the audience’s imagination. And personally, I found it a little unbelievable how quickly the Wilsons adjusted to their horrific situation. And as I said, despite its high quality and attempt at getting across some sort of message, it does play out pretty conventionally for the most part.

Yet, as I often stress, conventions and cliches don’t have to be a bad thing by default. This movie is a prime example of that. The horror cliches are part of what makes Us so much fun. And while it may not win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, it’s another fine work from Jordan Peele. Though you’d get just as much out of it at home with a big screen and surround sound, I’d say Us is still worthy of the price of a theater ticket.

Some additional points:

* Excellent use of the song “I Got 5 on It” by Luniz. As well as another song, which I will not spoil.

* While their roles in the film are small, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker manage to do a lot with what they’re given as friends of the Wilson parents.

* Having consumed much more TV than movies in recent years, I find myself more appreciative of how films as tight as this can do so much with, comparatively, so little time. As with Peele’s last movie, he’s able to pack a lot of subtext and foreshadowing into the first half hour or more and making it so seamless in the moment before we realize how much of it is laying the foundation for what the film is really about in the end. I know that’s vague, but I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers.

Four out of five golden shears.

2 comments:

An Honest Fangirl said...

I just saw this this weekend and absolutely loved it. It was tense and scary and the acting was phenomenal. I did guess the big twist within the opening minutes, which was a little disappointing, but it didn't hamper my enjoyment of the movie. Definitely worth the price of a ticket.

TheShadowKnows said...

"I did guess the big twist within the opening minutes"

I leaned over to my wife at about the five minute mark and whispered the final twist to her. I thought it was pretty obvious when they didn't show much about how... a certain event... transpired that something of that kind was going to happen.

I thought it was a very good movie. The trailer really only gives away a fraction of what happens, which is a rarity. For example, if you watch the Pet Sematary trailer (which played before Us at the showing we attended) you really don't need to see the movie.