Despite some rough narrative seas, Us weathers the storm thanks to a ballast of strong performances, compelling cinematography, and excellent music.
Let’s face it, after heralding his arrival with such a critical and popular success as Get Out was, many people were worried for Jordan Peele’s second feature, fearing the ubiquitous sophomore slump. To hear Rotten Tomatoes tell it, Peele has convincingly avoided this pitfall, with a brazenly high 94% rating stamped to his new film. The reality though, is muddier, and, like many a polarizing film, will be judged independently of critical acclaim in the minds of each viewer.
Us is not at all a bad film, but neither is it a great one. On the grand scale of valued work, it falls solidly into ‘above average’ territory. Like Get Out, there’s a lot going on metaphorically and subtextually. Peele is quickly establishing himself as a detail-oriented filmmaker who’s every decision is imbued with deeper thought and meaning. The problem arises when these decisions usurp a cohesive plot, fragmenting rather than unifying the story. Where Get Out was an example of metaphor serving the story and giving it an underlying social bite, Us suffers from subtextual overload, a social conscience built from too many floating strands, woven into a messy clump rather than a discernable message. It tackles everything from classism, fear of immigrants (the ‘other’), the dark side of our personalities, and... governmental control of people’s lives? Even for a television series this would be a lot to cram in, let alone for a 121-minute film. And because of this, the plot of Us moves past the point of purposeful ambiguity straight into unstable narrative. It doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
The above criticism will unquestionably make this film a negative experience for some, but for me, there was more than enough to tip the scales back towards enjoyment. For one thing, the performances are fantastic across the board. Each of the main cast, right down to the children, turn in impressively dual performances as the ‘regular’ and the tethered versions of themselves. Peele gets full mileage of out every child actor. This is a gamble, as children's performances, if unconvincing, can shatter the suspension of disbelief. But both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as Zora/Umbrae and Jason/Pluto respectively, somehow cover both sides of the spectrum in this film: fearful and fear-inducing, without even a drop of unreality. Lupita Nyong’o, the protagonist of both factions, convinces as both Adelaide and Red, both sufferers of trauma in their own way, but separated by the differing physicality Nyong’o brings to Red (to say nothing of that voice!). And finally, Winston Duke, who is fast becoming another of my favorite actors to watch, brings an awkward, dad-joke style humor to the film that injects some levity into the horrific smatterings of violence. It’s hard to believe that the man who plays the aloof and dangerous M’Baku from Black Panther is the same actor as the calm, bespectacled, professorial Gabe Wilson.
The cinematography is another strong suit that elevates the film. The images are beautiful and the color palette vibrant, eschewing the dull desaturation of past horror films. Peele’s shows off his eclecticism with diverse settings, each dominated by unique hues, varying the images we see and constantly keeping our eyes interested. This is a great looking film, no bones about it. Us also demonstrates a fondness for the slow zoom out, used liberally in many scenes in the film, slowly revealing the full information of a scene over the course of what seems like minutes. Peele pairs this with the slow track, most noticeable in the theme park of the first scene of the film, as we follow young Adelaide and her parents. These camera techniques extend the tension of the scenes, keeping the audience in expectation, waiting for something to pop into frame, some stinger to shock us, but it never does, instead keeping viewers taught over long periods of time. Peele largely avoids the tired use of the jump scare, subverting expectations with suspense as his bread and butter.
And he doesn’t forget the ears either. The music is a welcome addition, with suitably creepy pieces like the opening omposition, some strange cross between a children’s nursery song and a funeral dirge, sung in gibberish. Add to that some tonal mashups with hit songs playing over murderous moments as the tethered begin their rampage, and you have some uncomfortable catchy scenes crafted that won’t soon be forgotten.
Taken altogether, the positives outweighed the messy story for me. It was an enjoyable experience in the moment, and only towards the end, when thinking about it, during a dump of ill-placed exposition delivered through awkward close-up, did the holes make themselves apparent to me. As an experience, however, I believe Us is still a film that merits being seen, and, while Jordan Peele has perhaps been hastily dubbed the new “master of horror”, he has shown a proclivity for fresh ideas and a willingness to take risks with his films, which is enough to make him someone to watch in the rote, tired, rehashed world of Hollywood today.