by Philip Price
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke & Elisabeth Moss
Runtime: 1 hour & 56 minutes
“Therefore, thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” And so, goes the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 from the Old Testament which serves to add incredible weight to the context of Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort and follow-up to his Oscar-winning feature debut, “Get Out.” Specifically, this passage represents a key mind set for half of the characters in “Us” but given the countless interpretations each verse of the Bible inspires so does what this verse might mean to our cast of characters. Peele utilizes both a handful of horror movie tropes as well as some admittedly fantastic symbolism to reiterate the influence of this verse on his work time and time again throughout the film seemingly forcing the audience to determine just how much they might mean to take or receive from film, what these images and actions might mean, what they might be saying, what they're trying to say, or if they even intend to say anything at all. In the context of the Bible, this verse refers to God's punishment of the Jews after the fall of Babylon. God was punishing Jeremiah and his fellow Jews for worshiping false idols, but in “Us,” the descending attackers who are also doppelgängers of the characters that make-up our main family seem to be mad at their counterparts for a handful of other reasons. Of course, there is no doubt the argument could be made that in some regard the family under attack in “Us” are false versions of these invading doppelgängers thus the reason the red jumpsuit-laden clones are so intent on doing away with their counterparts, but it can't help but feel as if there should be more to Peele's second film than simply this tit for tat comparison between the verse he quotes and the story he is telling. Moreover, it doesn't just feel as if there should be, but it feels as if there is more at work here than just a metaphor for this kind of darkness that lurks inside us all; this ugliness we all have to come to terms with at some point in order to move on and either choose to better ourselves or succumb to our repressions. Of course, the seemingly numerous analogies and motifs littered throughout “Us” could simply exist to suggest the inspiration of different ideas and considerations in individual viewers while the core of what Peele is doing is executing his love of horror on a much grander if not more stimulating scale.
“Us” begins by introducing us to a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) in Santa Cruz in 1984 as she attends a fair on the boardwalk with her father, Russel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and mother, Rayne (Anna Diop), as her father is very clearly already inebriated though still manages to convey a visible sense of affection for his daughter while Rayne is beyond irritated he can't seem to either hold his liquor or resist drinking on a family outing. This irritation only intensifies when Adelaide's mother asks her father to watch the young girl while she goes to the restroom and in that short period of time Russel loses her. Adelaide has wandered off into a house of mirrors and naturally-within this environment-happens to see herself many times one of which just so happens to not be a reflection. In what could only be described as a twin or clone of some kind Peele quickly takes us out of the scenario and fast forwards to the present day, but we are left with this looming sense of dread that these events also left a lasting impression on Adelaide. In this present day scenario, grown-up Adelaide is happily married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and has two children, a boy named Jason (Evan Alex) and a girl named Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), with Zora being the oldest and presently in full-on teenager mood while the younger Jason feels socially awkward and unsure of himself. Adelaide is seemingly happy and content as this representative of your average, middle-class family are headed toward, not coincidentally, Santa Cruz where they are staying in the same house near the beach that Adelaide grew up in while planning to get in some good hang time with a couple of friends who have rented a place down the street. It's evident from the get-go that Gabe measures himself against Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) if not his children against their spoiled, condescending teenage twins (Cali and Noelle Sheldon), so much so that Gabe goes to the extent of buying a boat without his wife's knowledge simply so that he might impress Josh or at least prove he's as capable and successful as his friend.
It's not long after meeting the Wilson family that they retire to their house and, as you've no doubt seen in the trailers, their doppelgängers show up with little to no explanation as to why they exist, what they want, or what their intentions are with this family that looks exactly like them. To go any further into plot details would certainly tend to begin spoiling certain elements, but while there will be slight spoilers throughout the rest of the review, what is interesting about “Us” at this stage in the discussion is how it tends to evolve from a contained study of family dynamics, social classes, and personality responses to mainstream culture mixed with a home invasion thriller to that of operating on a scope that is much grander than expected. By the time the second hour of the film kicks in the viewer bears witness to the fact this isn't just an isolated incident and that in fact what is happening to the Wilson's is something of a worldwide event-brought down to our level in a shockingly blunt and violent sequence. While Peele makes his audience aware of this scope though, this doesn't mean we necessarily see the repercussions of such events on the same scale as we, the viewers, stay in tow with the Wilson family and are led to believe they might be key to why these events are happening in the first place. That said, there is a plot twist in the third act, but it ultimately feels like a twist for the sake of having a twist in a horror movie. The twist certainly makes sense in the scheme of the story and undoubtedly enhances the meaning that Peele knows audiences are going to pull from his film, but it is an obvious twist that several other movies have utilized in order to serve as something "shocking". Peele doesn't rely on this to the point it's not effective as it's easy to see how said twist will make repeat viewings feel more layered, but upon first viewing it leaves the audience feeling as if the final, "big twist" was more of a cop out than a well thought out revelation given the type of analysis that has taken place throughout.
With “Get Out,” Peele essentially crafted a masterpiece in every aspect of filmmaking; from the writing to the performances to the meaning to the craft in general. As much is stated due to the fact it will always be somewhat unfair that Peele set this precedent for himself right off the bat, but it is now a fact of the matter and the fact is all of his films that follow forth from here on out will inevitably be compared to that debut. As previously mentioned though, “Us” is its own kind of interesting by virtue of the fact it broadens its scope as it unfolds which is immediately different from the more contained, air-tight narrative of “Get Out” that was broadened more in terms of theme than in actual scope or visual prowess. “Us” is Peele operating on a new level; a level that should be taken as his vision unfiltered. This is exciting, obviously, and everything Peele does here on a surface level, in regard to “Us” functioning strictly as a genre film is telling as it is genuinely scary in a world where genre films can easily rely on tropes or well-worn styles to get them through the necessary beats. With “Us,” viewers will naturally draw conclusions about the metaphors and the meanings of these metaphors, but Peele has done maybe the best thing he could have done in having first and foremost made an entertainingly scary (and scarily entertaining) movie. The doppelgängers are legitimately frightening and make no doubt that Nyong'o's dual performance here doesn't have everything to do with this effectiveness. The woman turns in two lead performances that are equally distinct and drastically different from one another. The tone that Peele balances (or tries to balance, but more often than not succeeds in) between real horror and comedic undertones is surprising and only rarely undercuts itself. As in “Get Out,” there was a heavy reliance on comedy as certain character's functioned only to serve as comic relief and while there are hints of as much within “Us” this is a much darker film in terms of where it goes and how far it's willing to go. Duke's Gabe is the best example of this, but Gabe is not a character that exists only to serve this function. Rather, Gabe is a fully fleshed-out character with a real arc, a definite purpose, and a key member of the ensemble who just so happens to be funny in moments even if not all of those moments are opportune. It's a hard balance to maintain period never mind for a full two-hours, but there are instances where the great tension the film has earned is deflated due to this need for a laugh that inadvertently stalls the momentum no matter how slight. The strong performances extend across the board and into the hands of the child actors that are given more to do than initially expected especially given the tone and genre type. Though they tend to be mostly one dimensional save for a few moments once shit really hits the fan the performances by Joseph and Alex add aspects and features to characters, we think we have figured out within the first five minutes of being introduced to them.
Furthermore, the scares are authentic when the tone does begin to swing for the fences of being a straight-up nasty, bloody horror movie with some pretty gnarly moments along with employing the kind of tension that gives one the sense of knowing they don't want to know what's about to happen despite the fact they can't help but continue to watch to find out what occurs because an investment has been made in these characters. Beyond what they might each represent we are simply rooting for this family to make it out of whatever weird situation this actually is; even if what is happening and how it is happening is never really made clear. The score from Michael Abels is also of note as it immensely enhances the scares and level of tension that reside within the experience. Not to play devil's advocate necessarily, but the hang-up with “Us” is that there is seemingly so much going on within the mind of the movie that it leaves things vague to the point any certain interpretation could be taken with a fair amount of credibility. While there is certainly nothing wrong with leaving strands open for interpretation or in littering details throughout one's narrative to eventually culminate in something that can be interpreted in any number of ways what is frustrating about “Us” is that it doesn't provide answers to some of the more basic plot points that would essentially nail down whether Peele wants viewers to at least lean in one direction or the other. Instead, “Us” feels as if it doesn't necessarily care what direction it leans toward as long as you, the audience member, take away a direction you can run with it in.
While “Get Out” was explicitly about race, “Us” more allows its audience to derive their own meaning from it. There are certainly theories that could be applied to “Us” that deal in race relations, in immigration, in border control, and limitations placed on people because they're not like the person a fair amount of "U.S." (get it?) citizens see in the mirror, but the film could also go a completely different way in being this portrait of duality-this analysis of our society turning in on itself with aspects like the aforementioned twins, the house of mirrors, and the weapon of choice in this film (the scissors) all representing two separate things that share a likeness that are bound together in some fashion. The "tethered" as they are often referred in the film are shadows of these more privileged counterparts, they seek to bring down with the opening bible verse being a pretty bold statement about things that mirror one another. The key in this line of thinking though, seems to be that of the tethered suffering through their lives at the mercy of the actions and decisions made by their above ground counterparts. The tethered are seemingly human beings on a base level but are treated as less than. They are the same as those we see flourishing in what is the movie's version of our reality, but without the same opportunity and in many ways represent the countless possibilities of the many versions a single person can become based on their upbringing and the amount or lack of love invested in them. There are a million other theories that could undoubtedly be taken from even these ideas that could likely be fully supported by details others could point out and the fact “Us” provides so much to chew on says a lot about the film in general, but it's something of a double-edged sword for as it could seemingly be about any number of things it isn't definitively about anything and therefore feels as if the film itself isn't sure what it wants to say. I'm sure Peele has a very specific idea and clear intent behind his writing and this story, but as far as how this is relayed to the average, non-objective movie-goer taking this at face value, “Us” ultimately ends up feeling light in its persuasion to help one see something familiar in a different light. It's one of those things where there is so much happening that it becomes more difficult to receive what was meant to be taken away. Again, with the precedent “Get Out” set it is understood there is a yearning to gain a new perspective from Peele's work even if it's not there and while it's unfair to maybe expect this from a creator on a consistent basis if Peele is going to lean into this reputation as he does with this sophomore effort it would be more fulfilling if everything he sets up had been followed through on in a more decisive manner.