Image Credit: Universal Pictures International (UPI)
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex
Length: 2hr 1min
Untangling how to react and make sense of Us is just as wild a ride as actually watching it. Unlike Get Out, whose political messages and carefully crafted structure were explicitly understandable right from the get go, Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated sophomore effort is far more cryptic in both its messages and its execution – a puzzling nightmare made flesh that has more in common with Kubrick’s The Shining than it does with Peele’s previous horror-thriller. Figuring out exactly what the director is on about is enough to drive anyone nuts on the first viewing, but God it’s refreshing to watch a mainstream filmmaker swing for the fences in such visceral fashion.
I won’t be going into any spoilers with this review (I’ll flirt with the film’s themes, but won’t discuss the plot points that get us there), as discussing the story beyond even the basics seems a disservice both to you and to Peele’s intent. Going in, I knew what I think is just enough to get the basic gist: that the film revolves around a family’s beach vacation going off the rails when an identical doppelganger family shows up on their doorstep in the middle of the night. I haven’t watched the trailer but I already know you shouldn’t either.
Figuring out exactly what the director is on about is enough to drive anyone nuts on the first viewing
Comparisons to Get Out are inevitable, if slightly unfair. Where Get Out always felt to me as though it functioned as a drama/thriller first and a horror second, Us is a horror movie first and foremost (along with Peele’s natural affinity for perfectly timed comedy). Even more interestingly, that horror is downright eldritch in its execution, with perfectly describable behaviour, such as the doppelgangers’ gutteral howling, turned chilling by its sheer inexplicability. Not since Annihilation has a film unnerved and wriggled under the skin quite so easily. That Peele manages to achieve the frustratingly rare horror feat of creating likeable characters only makes it all the more tense. Lupita Nyong’o puts in God-tier, multifaceted work as Adelaide and her doppelganger ‘Red’, but really the whole cast deserve absurd amounts of praise for their alternately grounded and disturbing performances. Meanwhile, the rhythmic stabbing of the film’s brilliant score pushes the nightmarish sensation even further. With Get Out, there was always the odd cutaway to Lil Rev Howary’s TSA agent to release the tension. Us’ score feels like the complete reverse of this: relentless, ever-present and heavy. Even the film’s brilliant (and darkly hilarious) use of ‘Good Vibrations’ comes at a gory moment of revelation where the true scope of Us’ stakes is revealed.
Whilst the film does work effectively as a straightforward horror, though, it soon becomes apparent that it was probably designed more for the second viewing than for the first. At its worst, this can make the film’s opening act feel unnecessarily slow and portions of the middle act seem as though precious little new information is coming to light. At its best, it provides the kind of satisfying construction that made *Get Out *so dense and rewarding to unpack. And Us is definitely a dense film, with repeated mirroring motifs, politically coded remarks and intensely multi-layered imagery (God it’s hard to talk about this film without spoiling it).
For as much of the film plays out without apparent explanation, Peele is obviously hurtling towards his in-universe reveals right from the start (though I would hesitate to call these revelations ‘answers’). I’m in two minds as to how I feel about these. On the one hand, watching the ending play out in front of you is immensely cathartic after the almost two-hour build-up. On the other hand, I imagine a version of this film where the finale’s extraordinarily uncanny visuals play out without explanation and can’t help but feel like the effect would have been infinitely more unnerving. To strangle the Shining comparison: it’s as though Peele creatively arrives at the Overlook Hotel, but never quite makes his way past the reception.
Even with the final answers laid bare, though, it’s not immediately apparent what, specifically, Us is training its sights at. Many have pointed to classism, racism or political ideologies (that the doppelgangers all wear Red jumpsuits is difficult to separate from the film’s very American-centric theming). However, none of these completely satisfied me, as too many of the story’s elements result in an uncomfortable ‘both sides’ reading (it is unavoidable that the doppelgangers in Us are portrayed as evil). In the end, the best answer might be the simplest and the hardest to overcome: that Jordan Peele is taking aim at the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and our society. The parts that are always there, whether we ignore them or not. That in the end, there are no easy answers. There is no ‘Them’ to label.
There is only Us.