Not all that long ago, Jordan Peele (Key and Peele), Writer/Actor since turned Director, was a name synonymous with his comedy sketch show. Dare I say that his 2017 directorial debut “Get Out” re-invented themes in horror and made fans stand up and take notice, even forcing them to reassess the limitless possibilities of the genre and the potential for change. Despite Get Out being guilty of stretching credibility in its characters logic and mindset surrounding the foundations of the Armitage families extracurricular activities, it cast quite the unique spotlight upon racial tensions and how we perceive each other in any given social situation, all the while maintaining enjoyable roots in both the horror and thriller genres. “Us”, Peele’s latest, certainly pays homage to many a film that has come before it, but like any good artist, the man injects multiple themes and fresh ideas into a narrative not so beyond the realms of reality in this day and age. Us is very much a Mystery/Sci-Fi film that can be likened to an episode of “The Twilight Zone” rather than the conventional horror film studios would have you believe it is. Husband and Wife, Adelaide and Gabe (played by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke), along with their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex), are enjoying a beachside vacation in sunny LA when they end up in a fight for survival after their home is invaded by “tethered” doppelgangers. The film also stars Elisabeth Moss (TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale), Tim Heidecker, and Madison Curry.
Us begins with a rather unusual matter of fact statement. One that basically informs the viewer that in the United States alone, there are countless miles of undiscovered subway and subterranean tunnels. They simply don’t appear to have any purpose. I, like most, didn’t think anything of that declaration at the time. However, after 90 minutes had passed, that seemingly irrelevant sidenote revealed itself to be of major significance. Only with hindsight do you realize that from the opening long take of a young girl watching a box TV (with VHS’s of films like “CHUD” and “A Nightmare On Elm St” nearby), unknowingly absorbing imagery for “Hands Across America” – a nationwide food drive, that the pieces of the puzzle have begun to take shape and do so in the most methodical of ways. Key pointers and information of note are almost always drip-fed to you and only when Peele feels it necessary to do so. There’s a duality in almost everything we see throughout Us, you just don’t know it until you know it. The title credit sequence is a prime example. A simple and slow reverse tracking shot that plays to a tonally peculiar operatic vocal track with drumming and a choir backing it. Initially, the frame opens tight on a rabbit in a cage and eventually pulls back to reveal a classroom wall full of rabbits in cages. Is it a metaphor? See for yourself. Us is full of moments like that.
The beginning of the film takes place at an amusement park in the mid to late ’80s, where we’re introduced to a young girl (played by Curry). Amidst a fun-filled family night, the little girl becomes separated from her parents and winds up in a house of mirrors. Cut to modern-day and the Wilson family arriving at their vacation home. The characterization in Us could be clarified as stock standard, but I actually think that’s just Peele’s way of highlighting that we’re all the same. The representation of this black family is undoubtedly the same as what it would have been had all the actors had been white. Never has there been a more accurate depiction of the embarrassing dad than with Duke’s character of Gabe. He’s a likable oafish guy almost solely responsible for the films comedic relief. A number of the scenes involving him are quite funny, namely the boat antics and some of his one-liners. Young actors in Joseph and Alex are perhaps guilty of the odd dip in intensity, but that’s nothing to scoff at given their limited experience in front of a camera. They play their dual roles really effectively, with Zora’s habit being her phone addiction, and Jason’s trademark a lighter that supposed to be some sort of magic trick – one that he can’t quite pull off. Joseph’s focus shines through once tethered Zora makes her entrance, whereas Alex gets to revel in more expressive manners as his tethered sports a Nomex hood and grunts away.
Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave and Black Panther) absolutely steals the show in Us, simultaneously delivering both an unnerving and convulsive rhythm of her tethered character (complete with tics and damaged vocal cords), as well as playing up the defensive and frightened exterior of her motherly, Adelaide. Peele’s script is rich and layered and that allows Lupita to go for broke in this world of duplication. On the technical front, this is a great looking film with atmospheric lighting, sharp sounds, and a superb score. DP, Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) sets it all in motion with smart and simple cinematography. There are a lot of sweeping wide shots and intimate close-ups, the focus often on Adelaide and her ever-growing fears. The foley is extremely effective, and Get Out composer Michael Abels ups his game yet again with an eclectic, unique, and chilling score. Luniz’s rap track “I Got 5 On It” is used in such a great way and the orchestral strokes help to generate most of the film’s tension. Peele ups the violence this time around as well, with more practical blood spray and a few surprisingly aggressive moments. In one particular scene, a number of characters are surprisingly set upon and the audience witnesses it from outside the house looking in – really unexpected and cool stuff.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD (OTHERWISE SKIP STRAIGHT TO RATING)
The biggest issue with Us lies with the studio clearly having mismarketed this one as a home invasion type Horror film. Whilst the premise has an element of the genre to it and the trailer was eye-catching and really well cut, Us is a Mystery/Sci-Fi film, make no mistake about it. It’s problematic and somewhat disappointing if you choose to look at this as the former because the result simply isn’t scary. A majority of the suspense permeates purely through Abel’s “Hitchcockian” score, very little is actually manufactured through any of the scenes or imagery. I, for one, didn’t have an issue with it because I was so engrossed in the mystery of it all – much the same as with Peele’s debut feature. Some of Duke’s comedic relief does fall flat or feels ill-timed, most notably throughout the third act. By and large, the bulk of the score was fantastic, although Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” is a bit too bohemian for the tone of the film and better suited to something like “Harold and Maude”, despite somewhat fitting the final shots. There are so many finer points to delve into and dissect when you look at a film like Us. It’s strongest when Peele lets the imagery speak for itself, as there’s almost always a decipherable meaning behind even the most inconsequential of things, be it the unconventional means of communication between doppelgangers, a toy ambulance becoming the focus of a shot or a frisbee landing on a particular spot. All that said, not everything adds up, and what I mean by that is that certain things only come into play when it’s convenient for the narrative – in turn calling credibility into question.
I’ll break down the film blow for blow and discuss what works and what doesn’t. So, my read on it is that at some point in time the government began experimenting with cloning people, doing so underground with the intention of basically controlling the masses. These clones are referred to as the “tethered” (living down below), meaning they are connected through DNA to their “above” selves. A young Adelaide enters the house of mirrors in the first act and encounters her tethered. Now, we’re led to believe that the tethered involuntarily mimic everything that their above selves do and therefore they’re forced into an existence that simply isn’t their own (hence they can’t leave the underground). Later we see that there’s always been a clear path in an out of the house of mirrors (you’d have to assume there are many more in other locations) so tethered Adelaide only encounters her real counterpart because young Adelaide went in there in the first place. At first, Us just appears to be a contained nightmare for the Wilson family as each one of them ultimately faces off against their tethered. Early into the second act though, it’s revealed that the occurrence is actually an America wide attack and everyone has their very own tethered trying to kill them. The tethered have their own means of communication too, and the only one that appears to speak is Red/Adelaide. It turns out that they never learned a language and were essentially left to fend for themselves down below.
The first sign that all is not what it seems comes in the form of a monologue by Red to Adelaide, and it’ll have you thinking back to some of the things you’ve seen prior. Her irrational fear of the beach (stemming back to her childhood visit to the amusement park) and her inability or want to communicate socially with friends. Red paints a vivid picture of the stark differences between her families lives in comparison to Adelaide’s. Gabe goes toe to toe on the boat with his tethered in Abraham, Zora’s clone Umbrae stalks her on a nearby road under the dim street light, and Pluto (Jason’s tethered) seems hell-bent on seeing Jason’s magic trick with the lighter. Eventually, things come full circle and Adelaide reluctantly heads back to where it all started – the house of mirrors. It’s down below where she finds Red reveling in having bought all the tethered’s together for Hands Across America (think back to the promotional footage in the very beginning). It’s here where all the memories of Adelaide/Red are unveiled, as we see that while young Adelaide was enjoying the park as a child, her tethered was witnessing the same actions being aimlessly acted out down below. Instead of people eating fairy floss and candy, they’re eating rabbits from cages. Rather than letting loose on a rollercoaster, patrons are stuck shaking in doorways. A game of whack-a-mole sees her father hitting a padded wall in replace. This all leads to Adelaide and her tethered ultimately coming face to face where we learn that Red was embraced by the people below as a sort of prophet or savior. She was inevitably responsible for the revolt. From there, a showdown takes place in the form of a cleverly choreographed dance/fight sequence that showcases Adelaide’s ballet talents (of which can ultimately be telegraphed by Red).
There is one final twist in Us which I won’t spoil. Some said they saw the final reveal coming, but I think it takes supreme levels of deception to hook the audience, have them swear by it, only to then change their mind shortly thereafter and be fooled because they realize they had it right all along. There can be no denying that the biggest stretch in probability with the virtual existence of this “other world” is the logistics behind it. We know the government is responsible for a lot and can do a lot, but I think even that’s a reach for them. It means in order to take this seriously, we’re supposed to believe that the government cloned an entire country, realized they failed and decided to keep them all secure underground. They then somehow stocked the underpasses with enough rabbits to feed millions (survive on), materials to make countless identical jumpsuits, gloves, and scissors… I mean c’mon, seriously. How many years did this experiment go on for? Because there are no signs of decay or death down there. Not to mention that all the kids would’ve had to have been born at some point and there were no signs of any facilities to cater for that. There are no explanations for all those missing details and that’s a problem. Peele could’ve at least aesthetically alluded to a few of those things on how the government may have assisted. Then you’ve got the whole notion of the tethered replicating what the “above” do. That only holds up when Peele wants it to. Initially, it seems like Jason/Pluto are the only pair piloted by the former’s actions (just look to him walking back into the fire). Clearly, while Jason has been failing to ignite the lighter, Pluto has been bearing the brunt of the flame down below. That establishment renders itself contradictory though when Pluto clicks his fingers at Adelaide because Jason never actually clicked them in the car he just nodded to the music. As for Gabe and Zora, they don’t appear to wield any control over their doppelgangers, begging the question as to why it’s only Jason and Adelaide?
Us might not be the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be, however, it’s a wholly original and vastly entertaining film that’ll get you thinking more than anything else that the genre has had to offer up in recent times. This one’s unapologetically a Twilight Zone melting pot consisting of equal parts Shyamalan and Kubrick by way of “The Machinist”. In addition, the countless references to some of Peele’s favorites are a good bit of fun. The cinematography is stylish, the sound is crisp, and the score is one of the best of the year thus far. Acting is strong across the board with Nyong’o delivering one hell of a performance (that should garner attention come award season – another reason not to call this a horror film). I certainly can’t look past those issues but I still loved this film. I’ve seen it twice and I think it’s a clever piece of cinema that warrants further viewings. Go ahead and check out the trailer below and be sure to catch it in theaters now!
My rating for “Us” is 7.5/10