Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Before he turned into a modern day Hitchcock for 21st century moviegoers, Jordan Peele had established himself as a comedian with the likes of his popular sketch comedy series “Key and Peele” and when you decipher his directorial debut from three years ago: “Get Out” (in which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) you can see where his comedic elements helped him become a household name. His directing on the other hand, is something to marvel at. His latest allegorical head trip: “Us” proves his first outing behind the camera was no fluke, it reinforces how we have a new horror maestro for this generation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now we’re all sitting around a campfire discussing which Peele film is our favorite.
A film that will require multiple views to fully unpack the pallet that Peele is trying to create, “Us” is a daring and provocative work of mainstream cinema. An audacious sophomore effort in which Peele throws so much inside his frames and imagery, it’ll be dissected in film classes and written about in cinema history.
That said, “Us” is far from perfect, it features some noticeable editorial cuts (and musical cues) that undermine the intensity and rhythm within certain scenes, and folks who watch films with a literal sense might ask questions that would point out gaping plot holes (not all of the elements thrown at this moviegoer stuck). Granted, Peele isn’t keen on giving all the answers, so if you leave “Us” with a moral conundrum of ‘What the hell did I just watch?’ Just know you're probably not the only one
Much like “Get Out,” Peele’s screenwriting sets up an eerie sense of dread in the opening minutes, where the film begins its beautifully crafted three-act structure. For act one, we meet The Wilson family, consisting of married couple Gave (Winston Duke) and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), who are visiting Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation. Once settled in, the Wilson’s head to Santa Cruz beach to see the Tyler’s (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss), his family friends. Unbeknownst to the crowd, this is the same location where Adelaide had a traumatic experience at a young age when she wandered off from her parents and got lost in a hall of mirrors. For years, Adelaide has kept what she saw bottled up, she swears it was an exact double of herself and not some weird reflection.
As the groundwork for this normal trip gets laid, later in the evening - things only intensify as the Wilson clan notices a family of four standing (hand in hand) in their driveway. Gabe, trying to put on his tough guy face, asks them politely to leave. They don’t. Instead, this clan of strangers, all wearing red jumpsuits and holding bright gold scissors, break into their home and this is where Peele reveals his first glaring metaphor. The home invaders are actually The Wilson’s themselves. Well, not exact duplicates, but carbon copies that have their physical appearance, yet lack personality. These doppelgangers go about taunting, tormenting, and torturing The Wilsons.
To reveal anymore would spoil the big hook of what “Us” is trying to accomplish. In reality, “Us” is asking audiences to look at what’s happening in out country and reflect it upon themselves, in the literal sense. The ending and interpretations of this social commentary will be different on each individual (I know the group I went with each had their own stances), and that’s partially the beauty of how Peele creates his work, he makes a film that warrants discussion afterwards. Though “Us” isn’t as satisfying or crowd pleasing compared to “Get Out,” but taken on their own terms, both films tackle similar themes in different and profound ways.
And it doesn’t hurt to have Nyong’o deliver not one, but two, powerhouse performances and if she doesn’t get professional recognition for her work it’ll be a disservice to the industry. Not only does the Oscar winner possess all the traits needed to be a nurturing and caring mother figure, but she also has the vocals, demeanor, and mannerism of a raging lunatic ready to slice open anyone who stands in her way playing “Red” (Adelaide’s doppelganger). She’s able to handle the mystery of Peele’s script exceptionally, and controls the matriarchy role with dexterity (considering her character was a dancer in her earlier years, a plot point that becomes integral to the message later on, the movements are on point).
Of course, Peele’s script isn’t without it’s witty humor with Duke’s Gabe earning howls of laughter; wisecracking one dad joke after another, and the two children (Alex and Joseph) seem game for any scenario Peele throws them in. They too tackle dual roles playing their other in scenes which require athleticism, and punctual timing (in addition, the use of a certain NWA classic and Beach Boy anthem: “Good Vibrations” provoke new and darkly comic meaning).
Still, you won’t get much answers as to why these ‘other’ children act in strange/obscure ways as Peele doesn’t like to spoon feed his audience. His intellectual approach to the material also effectively benefits audience members as his editing is flawless, going from present day horror to flashbacks of Adelaide’s traumatic experience seamlessly without sacrificing scares. Even better is the way Peele balances his tone. Given the interactions involving the Wilsons day to day activities early on are goofy and fun, once the moments of pure terror start popping up, these characters moments of comedy never break the tension because we’ve already grown an affinity for them. Think “Funny Games” meets “The Shining.”
Speaking of “The Shining,” there are numerous references to not only that horror classic, but nods to “Jaws,” and “C.H.U.D” and a few others I’m sure were missed on my initial viewing. But Peele’s films are nothing if not rewatchable, and while “Us” succumbs to a few jumbled miscues and predictable tendencies regarding a certain character’s arch, the final shot of “Us” brings everything to a shocking revelation. It makes up for those small irks in an otherwise ambitious scope of a film that has a lot to say about what divides us as humans and how those divisions hurt everyone.