Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is admirably stranger than his predecessor, but just as thought-provoking

 

Lupita Nyong’o’s vocal changes for her character’s doppelgänger is nightmarish. (Universal)

Before I get into the crux of my thoughts on Jordan Peele’s upcoming horror sophomore effort Us, I first have to quickly address something that is bugging me.  The fact that Jordan Peele recently had to validate Us as a “horror movie” because of the amount of people who called his directorial debut, 2017’s Get Out, a mere “thriller” or comedy, according to its Golden Globes nomination (which especially boggles my brain) is one of the most eyerolling things I have heard this week.  And it’s only Wednesday.  Just because you do not find a movie traditionally “scary” or you are a mainstreamer who rejects horror and decides to label high-brow horror films as “thrillers” because you don’t want to admit that you liked a horror film…please stop.  The horror genre has *always* been high-brow.  It has always been profound, and it has always dealt with issues pertaining loss, grief, trauma, family units, anxieties, relationships, mental illness, and insecurities– and if you think otherwise, you’ve been watching the wrong films.  Thanks for listening to my TED Talk.  
Now onto my spoiler-free review for Us.

Jeremiah 11:11 says, “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.”

This biblical quote that serves as a running theme throughout Jordan Peele’s second feature, Us, does not entirely make sense until the film’s third act, yet it resonates with anyone who has ever used political radicalism to justify their voices being buried, or to lash out against oppressors who they feel have stolen from them.

In a current American political climate where we (are told) to fear and to protect ourselves from the “other”– whether that be by building a wall, or by referring to those who do not share our religious beliefs as “terrorists”– we are told that they are the problem.  The blame is always pointed outward.  It’s no coincidence that “Us” shares the same initials as United States, and, according to Jordan Peele, these “outsiders” may be to fear at times, but maybe the real problem stems from ourselves– maybe we are our own worst enemy.

When an upper-middle class family of four arrives to their vacation home near Santa Cruz beach, a mother (Lupita Nyong’o) starts to feel anxious.  After an incident during childhood that has caused her post-traumatic stress as an adult, she worries that something is coming after her.  She describes feeling as if a “black cloud” is following her and her family.  And, to nobody’s surprise, she is correct.  A group of nearly-feral and underprivileged doppelgängers, who call themselves “The Tethered” arrive to the family’s home– seemingly seeking revenge with sharp, gold scissors– and we quickly find ourselves in a standard home invasion subgenre movie.

When our protagonists ask who these people are and why they’re here, they simply say, “We’re Americans.”  They seem fascinated by the family’s possessions and lifestyle, and simultaneously bitter– and they are out for blood.  Surely, commentary on the uneven layers of American class is at play here: the poor vs. the rich, the ignored vs. the privileged.

Sure, Us has its layers, but at its core, it’s a lot of fun.  Its weirdness and unanswered questions will likely confuse moviegoers as much as its frequent humor will make them  laugh out loud.  Most jokes land wonderfully, while others can suspend the tension mounting.  Sometimes Peele can’t decide what kind of tone he wants his movie to be, which isn’t necessarily an issue– that’s just his style.  He’s not the next Hitchcock or Lynch– he’s the next Peele, and we adore him for it.

Winston Duke, in particular, is so lovable as the dorky patriarch of the family who always finds the time to squeeze in a funny joke– even when he’s about to get brutally bludgeoned by his lookalike.  The children, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are both bright and badass when they need to be.  Elisabeth Moss as a family friend is a total blast to watch– bitingly sarcastic, yet incredibly unnerving when the role calls for it.  Out of everybody’s performances though, Lupita Nyong’o is the film’s standout.  Servicing as the film’s main legs, she switches from protective mama bear Adelaide to a calculating monster as her double, Red– complete with a hushed, nearly inaudible, terrifying voice that trumps any other of the film’s creepier moments.  Her voice will be following you, lingering in your dreams at night.

Deriving influence from other films such as Martyrs and The Babadook, Peele (who wrote the film too) does not succeed *quite* as much with his story in Us as well as he did with Get Out.  A couple logic issues will have you scratching your head, as, initially, the film’s “twist” feels choppy– however, with some muling it over and repeated viewings, I’m positive that will improve.  As well fleshed-out as some aspects of the narrative are, other parts feel like afterthoughts, particularly in regards to the personal level to the meaning behind “We are our own worst enemy.”  This theme works as a societal implication, as you’ll see by the film’s end, but, so much more could have been done with the other characters in the film besides Lupita’s to show us that we all have secrets in the dark that are waiting to sneak up on us– not just Lupita’s Adelaide.

What Peele may (slightly) lack in storytelling this time around, he has made up for with his improvement in visual and technical skills.  While Get Out was shot pretty straightforwardly, Us has its more artistic moments.  He makes interesting swooping-style, camera angles during pivotal fight scenes, while also choosing eery closeups of dead-eyed rabbit stares and neglected red candy apples in the sand.  A standout scene of Lupita’s Red holding the scissors to Adelaide’s head against a cracked, glass coffee table is stunning.  He chooses dark blue hues in some scenes and brightened, white, summery hues in others.  Peele has already established a particular style with his previous film, but he is starting to expand upon it here.  Additionally, he once again hired Get Out composer Michael Abels, who has crafted a memorably jarring musical score that will definitely be going into my horror scores playlist on Spotify.  (Yup, I’ve got one, and that haunting version of “I Got 5 On It” is definitely being added to the list as we speak.)

Even if he misses a couple marks, Jordan Peele has created a challenging, ambitious, weird, fun horror movie that will surely be an experience with a large crowd.  Us continues to unravel the mysteries that lie within his mind and unique brand of storytelling and filmmaking, and I will devoutly be along for the ride.  Jordan may like to remind us to watch ourselves, but I’ll probably be too busy watching anything he does.

Grade: B+

 

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