A few years ago we were all laughing our asses off with Jordan Peele on Key and Peele, but since the director hit us with the bombshell of perfectly-paced horror/social commentary that was Get Out the world has been salivating to see what he’ll come up with next. Then the trailers for Us hit and there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t creeped out by every damn frame it. It looked like Peele was going to be delivering something special once again.
Mysteries abounded, though. What the hell was this movie about and why were there so many bunny rabbits in it? Well, after catching its world premiere at SXSW this year I can’t really answer those questions because… spoilers. What I can tell you is that Us is a scary ass film that never quite reaches its full potential.
Director: Jordan Peele
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Us centers around the Wilson family, a perfectly normal American family who live a pretty privileged life and are on their way to the lake house the inherited from Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) mother. Adelaide is the mom here, accompanied by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Unbeknownst to her family, Adelaide had a traumatising event occur to her at the beach near the house and it has haunted her ever since. It’s the perfect set up for a home invasion horror film if I ever saw one. And that’s what Us starts out as, but the home invaders just happen to be dark reflections or shadows of the family. Why they’re there and how they came to be are part of the fun of the film, but they definitely want to kill everyone… eventually.
It’s easy to tell why Peele is one of the best horror directors working today from the get-go of this film. From the opening chords of a symphonic score that harkens back to the discordant scores of Italian surrealist terror as the camera pulls slowly back from an extreme closeup of a cage rabbit’s eye you know you’re in for something that pays homage to the old while reinventing at every turn directorially. In a film about confronting self, Peele uses reflections almost constantly to film his characters, giving even the “normal” ones a haunting double visage throughout the movie. Then when those reflections come to life they are nothing short of terrifying. This isn’t jump scare horror, it’s deep in your bones terror at something that’s just beyond unsettling.
Peele’s screenplay also weaves in laughs and subtle nods to the masters that have come before him. There’s enough homage in this film to almost call it outright theft, and yet Peele’s skill with the camera and his cast turns it into something you’ve never seen before. It’s disturbing and yet entrancing all at once, and it is hands down some of the most bone-chilling horror I’ve seen in a while. The movie, however, expands from that, going into realms you wouldn’t expect and that I can’t elaborate on. Still, it keeps its pace, only losing its momentum slightly near the end as a dump of exposition is given. And yet, even then, the movie stays visually appealing.
Nyong’o isn’t a revelation because we all already knew she is amazing, but this is easily the performance many will remember her for. Her Adelaide is fierce, defiant, and fragile all at once, and her mirror self is will keep you up at night. She delivers two performances in one film that could win her an Oscar and it is simply stunning to believe that the two characters are the same person. The rest of the cast, including two breakout performances by the film’s child actors, are insane. There are movies that ask actors to play different parts and then there is Us. Peele somehow pulled out the creepiest, darkest aspects of his actors and delivered them onscreen.
That isn’t to say the film works entirely. In fact, it might fail at its biggest goal: thematic metaphor. The history of horror films acting as a metaphor for social commentary started long before Get Out, but not many films nailed it so well, and Us doesn’t pull through. In other circumstances, I might be raving about Us, but given its creator, it feels a bit lackluster in this one area. It’s just that “the monsters were us all along” is such a cliche and while Peele tries to do something new with it, and add in some twist and turns the metaphors fall flat. This time you actually wish the commentary was toned back a bit because the horror would be even better without it, and, honestly, probably delivered on his message more powerfully overall.
Us is going to be unpacked, though, even if its thematic playing doesn’t work as well as it could, and probably should. I’m writing this an hour after seeing it (and just five hours landing from an 8 hour day of travel) so my brain isn’t able to analyze anything in too much depth let alone figure out the meaning of the religious allegory running through the film. It’s definitely there for the unpacking, it’s just not delivered as well as well as it could have been. Still, the general message that we, as America, need to take a long look at ourselves before we go casting aspersions at others because maybe, just maybe, we’re all a bit evil, rings like an attempt to say something instead of a desire.
Much like the characters in his film, Peele’s greatest enemy for this film seems to be himself. The expectations Get Out painted him into a corner to make another socially aware horror film, except this time it didn’t feel like his heart was entirely in it. Us is a technically gorgeous film, with some of the creepiest things you’ll see this side of Argento, but it doesn’t hit like Get Out did. Peele seems to want to one-up himself and in the process loses what would make the movie more than just good, but great.