Film Review – Us
Writer/director Jordan Peele – whose debut was the Oscar-winning Get Out (2017) – manages to avoid the sophomore slump with his latest horror film, Us (2018). Although this is not as narratively tight as his previous work, Peele has managed to yet again deliver an effective thrill ride chock full of style, humor, and scares. He has quickly elevated himself into the top ranks of genre filmmakers, and while his latest has plenty of issues that left me scratching my head, there’s no doubt he has set a high bar for himself – one that future artists will aim for.
The success of a movie largely depends on how well it’s casted, and Us achieves its goal with a strong group of actors all working in tandem. The standout is easily Lupita Nyong’o, who gives not only one of the best horror performances of early 2019, but one of the best performances of any actor in any genre. She plays Adelaide, a wife and mother whose family – consisting of husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) – take a trip to their summer vacation home. While their getaway starts off common enough, with drives to the beach and boat rides across a lake, things take a dramatic turn when one dark night they are visited by mysterious strangers dressed in red, all of whom look exactly like each member of the family.
Enough can’t be said about how great Nyong’o’s performance is. She takes the bulk of the character building, and she does a fantastic job of highlighting each and every nuance of her role: from fear, to strength, to hopelessness, and determination. An early scene shows a young Adelaide dealing with a traumatic event, and we see how that experience has molded her to person she’s become as an adult. The event she went through as a child works as both a weakness and a motivating factor, and Nyong’o convinces us of that with a natural, grounded performance.
But Nyong’o’s work doesn’t take away from how good everyone else is. Winston Duke provides much of comedic relief as the loving father and goofy dad. Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker also make an appearance as a married couple who seem more in love with what’s in their wine glasses than with each other. But the most impressive part of the cast as a whole is how they manage to play such different people when they are in the villain roles. As the doppelgangers, each of the actors exude a completely different aura, including the children. Outside of how they look, the way they move, sound, and behave is totally different, and that’s what makes the situation so suspenseful. As their home is invaded, Adelaide and the rest of the family stand on edge simply because they don’t know what their counterparts want with them.
Credit should go to production design, art direction, costume design, and make up departments. They provide all these small details that go into the look and feel of the story, which add up to an impressive overall result. From the doppelgangers’ red clothing, to their gloves, masks, and choice of weapon (scissors), these are all stylistic choices that I’m sure will be copied during Halloween for years to come. Even something as small as removing an actor’s eyebrows with makeup suddenly changes our perception of them on screen. The music is also done with a creative flair. The slower, more melodic version of Luniz’s hip hop song, “I Got 5 on It” creates an added layer of menace that is a welcomed change from the booms and crashes that we usually get from lesser horror scores.
Where Us comes up short is in the thematic elements. We start out with a strange title card describing the existence of underground passages which – I guess – is called upon later but isn’t strong enough to merit full out explanation. The reason for why the doppelgangers exist and what their motivations are doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In the first act and into the second, their ambiguity made them scary, but once we learn more about them the less threatening they become. Peele also takes a big swing by referencing the 1986 charity event Hands Across America, which called upon millions of people to join hands across the contiguous United States in a show of solidarity. I suppose this image is meant to be taken ironically, given how it’s dropped smack dab in the middle of a story of people literally fighting with themselves. Is it meant to be a reflection of modern-day society, in how political lines are drawn so sharply that it’s become an “us or them” situation? Perhaps. The execution of it doesn’t quite have the impact that I’m assuming it was meant to have.
Most of these issues take place in the third act, and that’s where Us will either make or break an audience. Viewers will either embrace what Peele is going for and call it genius, others might find it indulgent and awkwardly handled. I fall somewhere in between. Us soars as a survival horror film with touches of humor and a great lead performance. But in terms of subject matter, what it’s trying to say gets a little lost in translation.