***1/2 out of ****
(for violence/terror and strong language)
Released: March 22, 2019
Runtime: 114 minutes
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop
(SPOILER CAUTION: While no plot details are divulged beyond what’s been revealed in trailers and commericals, some analysis near the end of this review could be considered spoiler-ish.)
Jordan Peele’s sophomore follow-up to his breakthrough debut Get Out may not be a masterpiece, but it solidifies Peele as a master.
Get Out was an impressive work of horror/thriller artistry that served as a smart, resonant look at modern American racism (bolstered by a provocative indictment of white liberals).
Us matches and expands Peele’s command of the genre, but then strains for a similar social commentary. Many, no doubt, will admire and appreciate its more cryptic use of metaphor, but others may find themselves confused by what he’s trying to say.
And yet, as Peele told The Hollywood Reporter, that frustration is exactly what he’s going for: “I want moviegoers to be thinking, ‘Ok, what the eff did I just see? I need to process it.’ I want them to be feeling like, ‘I had fun. And now I need to talk about it.'”
Us will definitely have people talking, and the answers they seek will most likely come from an Old Testament prophet (more on that in a bit).
The premise is simple, if bizarre: a family of four vacationing with friends near a Santa Cruz beach are victims of a home invasion at their rental house. The attackers, however, are not ordinary thugs; they’re doppelgängers of the family, zombie-like, one for each member – mother, father, daughter, and son – all clad in red jump suits and wielding gold scissors. Horror ensues.
That nutshell is also an oversimplification. There’s a history behind the catalyst to this event, one that’s mysteriously explored through a slow-burn, dread-drenched first act.
Peele depicts this history without explaining it, creating a classic genre template where rules are being set and must be followed but, for us, they’re never defined. A lesser film would lay it all out, in expository detail, but Peele’s sharp enough to know that doing so would only bog down pacing and reduce tension.
In fact, even with an opening half hour that could’ve been tightened, there’s a cold, meticulous precision here that recalls Kubrick more than Hitchcock, more Shining than Psycho, mixed with a fair share of J.J. Abrams mystery-boxing.
Peele’s default to patience over speed is both admirable and welcome, and the efficacy of the whole construct is so palpable that we don’t even think about the fact that we’re watching polar-opposite performances by the same actors in the same scenes that are, at times, seamlessly squaring off in the same shots.
One can’t help but see Shyamalan influences, too, like an opening slate of text so out of left field (as in Unbreakable, before we knew what that movie was really about) where we’re left wondering what the information we’ve just read has to do with what we’re about to watch.
As it finally kicks in, descending into helpless terror and bloody carnage, more questions arise even as answers are finally given. Like many thrillers, the But Why?’s and Why Don’t’s start to pile up; some may get answered to your satisfaction, others likely won’t.
But like the best thrillers, the lingering questions and possible plot-holes really don’t matter because the ride is so damn effective – and at a primal level. If you get onboard (and it’s easy to), you find yourself dismissing, forgiving, or not caring about the nitpicks, rather than getting hung up on them.
What becomes compelling, then, aside from the stellar craft and cast (Lupita Nyong’o is particularly mesmerizing in the dual lead) or even the sheer visceral nature of the whole experience – especially as it expands beyond what one can predict – is what it all means.
Peele is dropping hints, clues, and symbols all movie long, creating a trail of thematic breadcrumbs for us to sniff, test, taste, or (if we’ve completely bought in) entirely devour. But given the obscure nature of the path those crumbs lay out, many viewers may find the allegoric morsels tough to chew on. At times, I know I did.
With some reflection, though, intriguing possibilities start to emerge, from a parable about the many unresolved sins still lurking from our nation’s past (I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if an Us “reparations” think piece eventually pops up) to parallels toward our current class divisions, institutionalized conspiracies, populist unrest, and the toxic political fallout, and even the more personal nature of what we keep repressed as individuals that insidiously destroy us as a local, national, and global community.
The root of it them all (or any others that will likely be gleaned) comes in Peele’s most obvious reference: Jeremiah 11:11.
You can read the verse here, which is telling enough (the numerical cloning of chapter and verse is also a nice touch), but the context of the entire Chapter 11 – which is itself a veiled reference to being bankrupt – is about a covenant being broken. Of a people betraying their founding ideals, virtues, and creeds, by returning to the sins they’d promised to leave behind.
No matter how you end up interpreting the movie and what it means (not that you even need to in order to enjoy it), a proper reading is ultimately rooted in that.
Then there’s that ending, which I found to be very unsatisfying, even cheap. It takes one final turn too many. The reveal it drops is, technically, substantiated in the narrative, but it’s completely incredulous as it relates to what we’ve seen from these characters, and amounts to an unearned gotcha. It makes sense, but I didn’t buy it.
That’s how I feel now, anyway, after one viewing. That could change with a second or third, or it (along with other head-scratchers) could eat at me even more. The fact that I look forward to finding out, though, is the real testament to what Peele has accomplished here. Us doesn’t merely incite a re-watch; it warrants one.