Synopsis: The Wilsons, a nice middle-class family, go on vacation to the seaside, where they get attacked by scissor-wielding, red-jumpsuited doppelgangers of themselves. Bloodshed ensues.
1. Anyone who watched Key and Peele should not have been surprised that Jordan Peele turned out to be a supremely gifted horror filmmaker. First, there are the similarities between both genres – the focus on setup and payoff, the importance of building and maintaining tension, and the heavy use of dramatic irony. Second, there was always something terribly, wonderfully macabre about the best Key and Peele sketches, be it the way ‘Continental Breakfast’ pivots into a parody of The Shining, the riff of Family Matters that transforms Urkel into a smirking, snivelling devil, or (in what might be my all time favourite) the non-stop escalating insanity that is ‘Aerobics Meltdown’. Part of Get Out‘s greatness comes from this intersection of horror and comedy – this was a situation that could be (and was) milked for equal parts laughter and scares.
2. With that said, I have had plenty of doubts about Peele’s post-Get Out career choices. Not because any of them are bad, mind, but because there have just been so many of them. As of now, aside from Us, Jordan Peele is working on … The Twilight Zone remake, the Candyman remake, the Lorena documentary, producing Lovecraft Country for HBO, and creating Weird City on Youtube. That’s a lot of work stuffed into just two years. To some extent, I get it. Get Out was like winning the lottery, a blank cheque that gave Peele the commercial and critical credit to pursue whatever projects he desired, and he has thus proceeded to pursue ALL the projects. I probably would too if I were in his position. This all-encompassing ambition is in full evidence in Peele’s latest film, Us, both for good and ill. On the plus side, Us might be an even better showcase of Peele’s technical craftsmanship than Get Out, and the screenplay is richly laden with symbolism and metaphor. However, it is clear (especially towards the end) that the film overextends itself, and in its desire to mean everything, it results in a situation where it might not mean much of anything at all.
3. So let’s get to that key question. What does Us mean? Get Out knew what it was about – the insidiousness of ‘liberal racism’, the sort that shielded itself in politeness and niceties, that professed to love black culture while so desperately wishing that said culture did not have to come with black people. I thought I had the central metaphor of Us pegged midway through – bunch of red-clad violent doppelgangers who say that they ‘are America’? C’mon, that’s almost too obvious, right? But then revelation upon revelation builds up in the third act, and it becomes one of those scenarios where the more exposition is given, the less sense the plot begins to make on both a literal and figurative level. That’s the thing about exposition – there’s a sweet spot of how much to convey, and Us would have done better to either not give any whatsoever (thus leaving the ‘Tethered’ purely in the realm of the symbolic’) or commit fully to explaining their origins (and thus fleshing out what the metaphor is rooted in). As things stand, Peele offers enough to suggest what the Tethered could represent, but not enough to confirm it, which puts the whole film in a sort of frustrating grey zone of simultaneously having too much and too little meaning.
4. And yet, with all that said about metaphors and symbols and figurative meaning and yadda yadda, Us is still worth watching just for being an extraordinarily well-crafted horror-thriller. My philosophy has always been that a film that ‘only’ provides surface pleasure is a good one, and goddamn does Us deliver on that. Peele’s camerawork has improved by light years since Get Out, and there are just so many sequences of what could have been rote ‘walking down a hallway’ scenes that are elevated by his supple, sinuous camera movement. Even in static shots, the film delivers the visual goods in spades, be it a single wide shot of mayhem seen through the windows of a house* or an old-school split-diopter shot of two close-ups of Lupita Nyong’o’s face. Peele’s sense of composition is immaculate, and he clearly loves he art of the frame within the frame, using doorways and windows to compress and reframe the actions taking place within. Like any good horror director, he also knows how to use shot depth and actions taking place outside the camera frame to his advantage**, and he has mastered the reliable scare tactics of figures popping into frame or appearing in deep focus.
5. When Peele needs to go stylish, however, he really goes there. Two major setpieces are soundtracked to ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Fuck Tha Police’ respectively, and they are both a lot of fun, not least in the way that the editing and blocking changes with each song – languid in the former and frantic in the latter. The climactic fight between the two Lupita Nyong’os at the end is also one of the more unique showdowns, choreographed more like a dance battle than a fight scene, and is even cross-cut with ballet footage for added oomph. One final point of note about Peele’s style is how well he uses light, and Us features several different lighting setups, from the scorching beach sun to the mood lighting of a bougie beach house to a boat lit by a single red flare. With so many horror movies relying purely on that Conjuring style swinging florescent basement light style, it’s very refreshing to see so many different variations in a single movie.
6. As for lead actress Lupita Nyong’o, this might be the first film since her breakthrough in 12 Years A Slave to truly harness her titanic talents. There is an unerring precision to both her performances as Adelaide and Red (the doppelganger) that somehow still manages to feel organic and natural. As Adelaide, Nyong’o nails the mounting desperation and the fury building up within at the interlopers attacking her family, while her portrayal as Red is just one of the creepiest performances in recent memory, terrifyingly uncanny with her raspy voice and unblinking eyes. The highest praise I can give to Nyong’o is that there is a revelation at the end that feels like somewhat of an ass-pull, but because of how well she sells it in the moment (and technically throughout the film), I did not question it any further. Lupita Nyong’o, ladies and gentlemen. So good she can stop pedants from nitpicking the plot.
7. The rest of the cast are uniformly good as well. The three child actors are refreshingly free of the affectations that tend to plague performers of their age, and they always feel natural and real. Winston Duke perfectly embodies the lame-dad vibe, and Tim Heidecker, as he does, creates a loathsome character with very little. But, as it always goes when her name is in the credits, Us is further proof that there is nothing quite as spectacular as Elisabeth Moss making faces at the camera. There is a single sustained close-up of her (well, her doppelganger) looking at a mirror, and I swear to god it’s my favourite seven or so seconds of film I have seen or will see this whole year. The woman is a treasure and the possessor of the most expressive face in cinema. Somebody please give her the Olivia Colmanesque breakout lead role she deserves.***
8. Us, then, is emblematic of the best and worst aspects of a sophomore follow-up to a successful debut. Ambitious in scope, but to the point where its themes and symbols start to get fuzzy around the edges. Jordan Peele, in his attempt to capture everything about America, ends up saying not much of anything at all eventually. Still, with a film as well crafted as this, much can be forgiven. Peele’s technical craftsmanship and ability to draw out great performances are still in evidence, and there is a strong argument to be made that Us might be even better crafted than Get Out. Where the debut shines over the sophomore effort, however, is in the surety of its message and the clarity of what it was trying to say. Whatever its flaws, Us is certainly worth watching and mulling over, and I look forward to Peele’s upcoming projects with great interest, for it very much seems like we are witnessing the birth of a new horror great that will be spoken of in the same tones as Romero, Carpenter, or Craven.
*Which is shamelessly cribbed from Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, but everyone steals – it’s how well you steal that counts.
** Major, major kudos as well for the use of sound design to serve as a link as the movie cross-cuts between different scenes featuring different members of the family.
*** Yes, yes, I know that she already has The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men, and several fine indie film projects in her resume, but I can’t help feeling that some Oscary auteur project would finally give her the plaudits she deserves.