Directed by Jordan Peele
This review contains mild spoilers.
It must be awesome to be Jordan Peele. As half of the comedy duo Kay and Peele, his work received plaudits from critics and fans all around the world, including President Obama. For most, that’s as good as it gets. But in 2017, he was equally well received by a new audience, when he burst on to the horror scene with Get Out. As a debut, it was a powerful statement of intent, and a great introduction to an exciting, and unique, new voice. Now, two years later, he’s back with fellow hit-maker Jason Blum for the tricky second film: Us.
Sticking to what’s in the trailer, as it’s easy to say too much, the movie follows the Wilson family as they take a vacation to Santa Cruz. Walking Dad-joke Gabe (Duke), and kids Zora (Joseph) and Jason (Alex) want to go to the beach, but Adelaide (Nyong’o) doesn’t want to – due to a terrifying childhood experience in the hall of mirrors. Still, not wanting to be a spoilsport she goes with them on the condition they’re gone by night. They’d have been safer if they’d stayed later, as that evening another family show up in their driveway. Well, I say ‘another’ family, but it’s actually them again – a set of violent doppelgangers, led by Adelaide’s double, Red.
What follows is an often intense home invasion narrative, as each member of the family fights with their double. It’s usually scrappy, making for more realistic fights than Get Out, and the choice of scissors as the main weapon means there’s lots of up close and personal conflict. Peele is excellent at staging these scenes, creating a real sense there may be something hiding in the shadows. The cast is stellar, making their central roles as vulnerable as their secondary roles are threatening. Each is tested throughout, and as they find strength it’s a joy to watch. One scene in particular, where they compare how well they’ve done, is an early contender for best comedy scene of the year. Winston Duke is especially funny as a cheesy father trying too hard to impress his wife and kids. The scenes where he tries to get macho are as good a portrayal of toxic masculinity as I’ve seen in the genre too. Though thankfully the humour never gets in the way of the first-rate tension, which is some of the best home invasion I’ve seen this side of Hush.
Taken on face value, the film function well as a horror. But what’s particularly rewarding is how well Peele is able to integrate his social commentary. He’s already demonstrated, on both his show and his first film, that he can combine genre elements with a message. This time around the symbolism is less in yer face, with the doppelgangers lending themselves to an array of interpretations. For some, it’ll be a take on a dark side present in all of us. For others, they’re a manifestation of the tribal politics that continue to split Americans (in that respect the title takes on a whole new meaning as the United States). Personally, I took their Guantanamo style jumpsuits as a haunting comment of the American justice system, and the conveniently ignored torture of the country’s own citizens by its government. Taken this way, the doppelgangers are the embodiment of a violent system Peele wants the audience to acknowledge their complicity in. Moreover, it’s a cry for empathy, literally visualising the victims could as easily be us with changes to our circumstances, and a reminder that violence begets violence.
Not that I think I’ve cracked the film. Part of its beauty is that there’s enough there for them to act as a cypher for any underclass or marginalised group. Which makes it frustrating when the third act betrays much of this ambiguity in favour of a weak explanation that raises way more questions than it answers. Like Get Out, and several episodes of The Twilight Zone (the return of which Peele is going to helm) the story gets bigger. As a direction for the plot to go, it’s serviceable if lacking clarity. But in attempting to give the doppelgangers a tangible origin, the script undermines the multifaceted allegories built up so well until then. Given the “baddies” stand in so well as an idea and metaphor, I thought it misplaced to ground them – particularly when the necessary world building is rushed. There’s also a twist so obvious I’d think more than half the audience will figure out within the first half hour. Aside from being predictable and formulaic, it doesn’t hold up to even slight scrutiny. As such, the emotional journey is lost in confusion. Combined, these elements rob the film of the fifth star I was so sure I’d be giving it. Still, in its closing moments, the film recovers, with an image that’s up there with the most awe-inspiring I’ve ever seen in horror. As the excellent choice of music and the staggering visuals came together I felt every hair stand on end and wanted to stand and applaud. And so whilst Us is not quite a masterpiece, I don’t think it’ll be long until we see Peele do one.