No matter how you look at, Jordan Peele's breakout horror hit Get Out (2017) was going to be a hard act to follow-the hardest, one could argue, since M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999). The two films bear striking similarities in terms of their unexpected cultural and commercial impact, as both were rare horror films that crossed over to become genuine box office hits, with Get Out taking in $176 million domestically, making it the 15th highest grossing film of 2017 (The Sixth Sense earned $293 million and was second at the box office). They were also both substantial critical hits, with even those critics who typically turn up their noses at the horror genre admitting that these were unique, well crafted films with emotional and thematic depth to match their unnerving content. Both were nominated for multiple Oscars (The Sixth Sense earned six nominations, while Get Out earned four, with both getting nods for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay). Peele ended up winning the award for Best Original Screenplay, which marked a first in Oscar history for the genre; no horror film had ever won that particular honor, and only a handful had previously won for Best Adapted Screenplay (you have to go back to The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and The Exorcist in 1973, although Pan's Labyrinth was nominated, but didn't win, in 2006). In other words, Get Out was a big deal, and not surprisingly all eyes have been on its canny auteur to deliver a worthy follow-up.
Alas, with such overbearing expectations, it is hard not to feel that Peele's sophomore effort Us, which he wrote, produced, and directed, falls short of the mark made so indelibly by Get Out. The good news, however, is that Us is still a very good film, which proves that Peele is hardly a flash in the pan; his talent is undeniable, as is his dedication to crafting superior horror movies that work beyond the general expectations of the genre. Peele is an artist who wants to say something and unnerve us in the process, which is what made Get Out such a Hitchcockian masterclass in melding the staples of horror with in-the-moment sociological insight and political paranoia. Us is a more straightforward horror film, with less emphasis on the sociological and more emphasis on things that go bump in the night. Peele has consumed and absorbed a lifetime of horror, and it shows in his deft ability to switch tones (parts of the film are cathartically funny, while other moments are the stuff of nightmares) and to orchestrate light and shadow and composition and timing to maximum effect.
The collective protagonist in the story is the Wilson family, who are on summer vacation in Santa Cruz: wife Adelaide (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o), who is thoughtful and reserved; husband Gabe (Winston Duke), who is boisterous and goofy; adolescent daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), who is much like her mother; and elementary-aged son Jason (Evan Alex), who is bright and a bit odd. They are returning to a summer home previously owned by Adelaide's now deceased parents, who we see in an opening late-'80s flashback taking her to the rides and carnival games on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, an event that culminates in her getting lost during a storm and coming face to face with what appears to be her doppelganger in a creepy funhouse (is there any other kind?). As an adult, Adelaide clearly bears scars from this terrifying childhood experience; despite having largely repressed it, she is palpably uncomfortable being in Santa Cruz and even more uncomfortable when Gabe convinces her to go with the family to the beach next to the still-standing funhouse. Even the time spent with their friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), is fraught with tension and unease.
The horror really begins that night, when the Wilson family is inexplicably confronted (Beware! Some spoilers to follow!) with another family that looks like a demented copy of themselves. "There's a family in our driveway," Jason says ominously, and at first we only see them standing in silhouette against a motion-detector light, their stillness exuding a sense of menace that is bested only when they suddenly move in unexpected ways (the manner in which Jason's clone, named Pluto, suddenly leaps away on all fours drives right into our primal unease about the thin line between the human and the animal, while Gabe's clone, Abraham, lumbers forward like any number of unstoppable movie monsters). At this point, the film deftly shifts from a family drama with supernatural overtones to a home invasion thriller, one that is compounded when the Tyler family is also confronted by their deranged doppelgangers. What ensues, then, is a battle for survival, with family members killing or being killed by their clones, which creates an undeniably disturbing aura of self-destruction. Although not as clearly marked as Get Out's racial themes, Us is certainly deepened by its commitment to a thematic richness that extends beyond monsters disrupting the ordinary. Peele is clearly intrigued not so much by external horrors, but by the internal ones-the terrible things we inflict on ourselves and the manner in which we so blithely dismiss others as "The Other" and relegate them to fates we'd rather ignore (when the history is written of cinema in the Trump Era, Peele will get his own chapter).
The ultimate explanation for the dopplegangers (who are later referred to as "Tethereds") is simultaneously clarifying and vague. There are aspects of their existence that are clearly laid out, but many, many other questions are left deliberately unanswered. Peele, who is currently producing and hosting a new iteration of The Twilight Zone on television, was clearly influenced by Rod Serling-not just his commitment to engaging the social and political through the fantastical and the horrific, but also his deft balance between explaining his stories and leaving it up to the viewer's imagination. The title Us is direct in its implication that the monster in horror movies is all too often ourselves (the standout example of this being George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, whose claustrophobic sense of entrapment and vague explication of an apocalyptic event are both influential here), a lesson that is all too apt in today's troubled times.
Yet, those thematic underpinnings also vacillate between being too on the nose ("We are Americans," one of the Wilson dopplegangers intones when asked who they are) and too vague or disconnected from the narrative (there are intimations of government involvement all throughout, but little is done with it). In this case, it may simply be that Peele, in his ambition to match his previous accomplishment, took on too much or it may be that Us, like Get Out, is the kind of multi-layered horror invective that will continue to reveal more and more of itself with each subsequent viewing.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
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