by Dennis Campbell
And to think, if it weren’t for you…I never would’ve danced at all.’
Poignant. Captivating. Chilling. These are just three words that I could use to describe Jordan Peele’s sophomore film, Us. After terrifying audiences with his debut picture, Get Out
(2017), Peele returned to the silver screen with a picture that delivers its message just as well, but is even more terrifying.
The film begins in 1986, our main character Adelaide (Madison Curry) is with her mother and father at a carnival in Santa Cruz. After her father wins her a Michael Jackson, Thriller t-shirt, Adelaide wanders off to the beach and walks into a Hall of Mirrors. In there she encounters what she believes to be her Doppelganger, but the camera cuts away before we know for sure. Twenty-three years later, Adelaide, now played by Lupita Nyong’o, is spending a Summer vacation with her husband, Gabriel (Winston Duke) and two children, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph & Evan Alex). At first everything seems fine as they enjoy time with their friends and bathe in the Sun. However, just as Adelaide did so many years ago, Jason wanders off and finds himself before the same Hall of Mirrors. He is rescued before he goes in though and the family ends up leaving shortly thereafter. Once home, everything returns to normal as the family settles in and go to their respective rooms. Gabriel watches a baseball game. Jason goes to sleep. Zora is on her phone, and Adelaide tucks her son in. Once night falls, Gabriel tries to seduce Adelaide, but she unveils what happened to her inside the Hall of Mirrors back in 1986. Then, almost self-fulfilling, a family of four that looks oddly like her family appears at the end of their driveway.
There are several aspects of this film that I loved. To start things off, the acting is unbelievable. All too often Horror films are plagued by subpar acting. Many times, the best you can hope for is one good performance surrounded by many newcomers. However, that is not the case with Us. While none of the people involved provided Academy Award winning performances, the fact that the cast members were able to not only portray their regular characters, but the Doppelgangers as well is stunning. All of them do so in a manner that makes it seem like they are two different people, while still showing connections to their counterparts. Nyongo’o and Joseph gave my two favorite performances of the film. With Nyongo’o she gives us a multi layered performance, starting with a carefree character who is focused on having a good time, but hidden just underneath that layer is the trauma she experienced as a child, always there affecting her choices. Slowly over the course of the film we see her grow. That experience in the Hall of Mirrors starts as something that holds her back. So much so that Gabriel must convince her to even go to the beach the day Jason disappears. Even when she saves her son, the trauma she experienced, while it motivates her to save him, is shown as something that she fears. As the film progresses though, and she has more flashbacks regarding what happened to her, Adelaide draws on her trauma for strength and ultimately overcomes it. When it comes to her Doppelganger, or ‘Tethered’ as they are referred to, Nyongo’o proves to be as terrifying as she was captivating as Adelaide. It is so impressive how well the two characters interact considering they had to be filmed separately. In order to prepare herself for her Tethered role, Nyongo’o researched Spasmodic Dysphonia, which is a Larynx disease that affects speech patterns. While she ended up apologizing for using a disorder for what is supposed to be an evil voice, it does, admittedly add to the performance. When it comes to children in films, I find that their performances can either be outstanding, or annoying. Regarding Joseph, and her onscreen brother as well, they give convincing performances given their ages. Moreover, another impressive part about both actors is that this is their first feature role, with Joseph never appearing in anything before this picture, while Alex had acted in a few TV movies. Joseph is a self-absorbed teen who cares about her phone, but obviously cares about her family. Umbrae, her Tethered, is the scariest character in the film. She is an unflinching psychopath who only cares about murdering her counterpart. While her performance is not as layered as Nyono’o’s, it is just as captivating.
From a directorial standpoint it is easy to forget that Peele is in his infancy when it comes to films. Aside from Us and Get Out, he has worked on a total of thirteen other films, primarily appearing as an actor. Still, he directs with such confidence that there is not a single scene in Us that seems out of place or poorly rendered. Almost immediately after its release, Us was being pegged as a Thriller rather than a Horror film, which is a sentiment that Peele goes against at every opportunity. While I can see the arguments regarding the plot, the biggest persuasion for me comes in how the film is shot. Rather than shots quickly cutting from one person or object to another, we have slow tracking shots that help build the tension. There are moments where what is supposed to be terrifying is kept off screen, creating another layer of fright as we are forced to imagine what is being hidden. The best example of the former in the movie comes towards the end of the film. Adelaide is walking through underground tunnels that the Tethered were trapped in, as she stalks her counterpart, we follow her from behind and it isn’t until Adelaide finally finds Red do we as well. Lesser made films would have shown us the hiding place and cut back and forth between the two, but Peele shows the restrain of a veteran director. In modern times the best comparison to how well Peele has started off his career, I feel, would be Quentin Tarantino. Both had stellar starts to their careers, with Tarantino directing Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) as his first two films. Two movies when averaged out have a score of 91.5% on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas Peele’s first two endeavors rest at an average of 96%. The fact that Peele has had such success so early is astounding. What is more impressive is how he has changed the landscape of modern Horror.
Horror films have evolved over the years. When they were first introduced around the turn of the twentieth century, they were Monster movies. That movement gave us classics such as Nosferatu (1922) and Frankenstein (1931). As time progressed, we saw a shift more towards atmospheric films like Susperia and then into the Slasher films like Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980). That was pretty much the norm for the seventies and eighties with names such as Freddie and Jason haunting the nightmares of moviegoers. However, when the twenty-first century came around there was a wave across the United States, France and many other countries that shifted more towards gore. Martyrs (2008), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005). That is what Horror had become, and in a way, it had saved the genre as the nineties had not been kind to it. As the decade wore however, this new fad became tired, so remakes filled with jump scares started to come out. Mixed in with the jump scares was the Found Footage genre, which, did have quite a few entertaining titles. True, one of the most famous is going to be the subject of one of a new series I am doing, Rewatch Value (where I look at movies from previous decades), but the overwhelming majority were not very good. That is a very brief overview of how we got to where we are now with the Horror genre. They was Peele has changed it is that he has proven that rather than showing us something grotesque such as a bloody corpse or monster, the scariest thing that can be shown is our own reflection, the things that lurk just below the surface of our everyday lives that we choose to ignore. I love the Hall of Mirror scenes as I feel it is a perfect representation of this. Peele gives us a movie that has plenty of violence and gore in it, but what is most disturbing is how evident the message on class and injustice is. Get Out was blunter with its messages but it was still equally effective. Not every filmmaker has the talent to make a film like this, Kubrick did, he did so quite often. I’m not saying Peele is the next Stanley Kubrick but when watching certain scenes, I couldn’t help but think of A Clockwork Orange (1971).
The music in the film is sparse, but when used is highly effective. Of the songs used, the most prominent one is the Luinz track, I Got 5 on It. A catchy song that Zora accurately points out is about drugs is turned into an ominous track that signifies nothing but dread by the end. According to multiple interviews, Peele originally shot the movie without the slowed down version of the song laid over the final fight scene. While I am a big proponent of only using natural sounds in films, this was a case where we are fortunate, he decided to put it in. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, when using music that directly conflicts with what is on screen, it can go badly very easily. If done correctly, scenes will be memorable for years to come, I have not forgotten the scene in Atomic Blonde (2017) when a character is beaten to death with a skateboard to the tune of 99 Red Balloons. However, when used poorly it can bring down a film as you are left wondering why that decision was made. Peele makes two good choices in this film as the Beach Boys make and appearance, as does N.W.A (the latter providing the biggest laugh of the film). That is another thing about the movie, despite how serious of a film it can be at times, there are plenty of laughs. It reminded me of Cabin in the Woods (2011), while not as funny as that film, there were enough humorous parts to where I was not overwhelmed by dread.
Considering the subject matter of the film, duality is heavily featured throughout the movie. I had a bit of fun noticing all the different instances of this, and I won’t spoil them here, but be on the lookout for them.
One final thing I want to mention is how many ways this film can be enjoyed. While it is true that there is a deeper meaning behind the film. Entire classes could be made examining it and the subtext it provides. However, if you are just looking for a straightforward Horror film, then this movie is for you. If you are looking for a film that will make you think and requires multiple viewings to understand, then look no further. I tried hard to think of something wrong with this film and I could not muster a single reason to not recommend it. It has likable characters, ones you want to succeed. There is a good soundtrack, stunning cinematography and solid acting to go around. At the very least, I can respect a film if it is genre defying and love it if it does a good job of taking the genre to new and unexplored heights. At the very least, that is what Us does, it is a film unlike any on the market today. The last time I felt this way about a movie was in 2013 when the film, her, was released. That was another film I could not find a single flaw with. In other words, its been over half a decade since I’ve seen a movie that I can recommend on all levels. Watch it at your earliest convenience.
My final rating for Us is:
Until next time.
*My father helped come up with a synonym for this review and wanted to be given credit at the end. Thanks Dad.