"Us" is a hypnotic enigma that will have you seeing double
"Us" is so carefully constructed, so precise in its execution, that it somehow follows traditional tropes of horror movies while methodically abolishing them at the same time.
Jordan Peele’s new film “Us” cannot be described in terms of genre. Although it is marketed as a horror-thriller, in the same vain as his previous work “Get Out” (2017), his newest venture is a grand mixture of many things, some cinematically familiar, some not. Peele has found the sweet spot – an area of filmmaking that transcends fiction, ultimately causing the viewer to rethink the concept of reality. The best part? It is completely self-indulgent, and I didn’t mind it one bit.
The less you know about “Us” the stronger your takeaway will be. Formally speaking, the film revolves around a middle-class family on vacation in Santa Cruz. Their sunny paradise is ruined, however, when a group of doppelgängers shows up and begins terrorizing them. Who are these people? Where did they come from? What do they want? These questions, along with dozens of other overarching mysteries, keep the film shrouded in dark intrigue from the moment it starts, and well beyond the final credits. Even as I sit at my computer and type this review, I am still left with an uncountable amount of questions.
This is where “Us” will gain some viewers, and lose others. It doesn’t present a clear message, nor does it supply plot details in the traditional way. Instead, Peele sprinkles clues throughout the narrative, some small, some large, and only the keen viewer will pick up on everything that the director is trying to say. Similarly to how Darren Aronofsky ’s 2017 film “Mother!” was presented, you have to let all of the details simmer for a bit before trying to unpack them. It's like receiving a mental beat-down, and before you can start thinking clearly again, you need to recover.
However, there are points where Peele asks the viewer to do too much work. To find some of the hidden meanings, the deeply rooted metaphors and political commentary, you really have to work for it. For movie analysts, this is a lot of fun; it’s a puzzle that needs to be put together, and as you tear it apart you'll come across several, if not dozens of philosophical interpretations. In this way, “Us” shares many similarities with “The Shining,” a film that rarely gave you answers, and instead, drowned you in questions.
The casual viewer, on the other hand, will be hit with a hefty dose of confusion. This is where things become self-indulgent. Peele has a story to tell but he doesn’t care if you have the patience to grasp it or not. It’s a world that he understands, and perhaps his actors do as well, but for the rest of us, we’re left in a perpetual state of mystery. It’s up to you to decide if you want to dig for answers, or take everything at face value. Be warned, however, that the face value story isn't nearly as captivating as what lies beneath the film's many layers.
The larger issue with this approach to storytelling is that Peele flip-flops on what he wants from the viewer. While the narrative may require some deeper thinking, he also asks that we accept certain things as they are without question. The film, for lack of a better phrase, is a logistical nightmare. I can’t even begin to count how many times I said to myself, “Wait, how did they do that?” or “How did that just happen?” or "Where the hell are the police?" For a movie that wants you to think, Peele seems to neglect the simple facts, such as supplying the rules of the universe and tools for giving the narrative a proper autopsy. Because of this, we’re left in limbo.
Even with all of that said, I’m still left dumbfounded: Why does a movie with so many plot holes and pacing hiccups still amaze me? Why do I love it so much? Well, my friends, this is where Peele goes from being a director to an auteur. The more I dug into this uncanny and speculative world, the more I wanted to remain there, soaking in the unique and perplexing atmosphere. From the expertly planted mise-en-scene, to the subtle foreshadowing, rarely have I felt so engrossed in a cinematic universe. Yes, I said universe. Perhaps it is because Peele suggests that this world isn’t all that different from our own. All of the symbolic commentary on xenophobia, racism, trauma – all of it, no matter how speculative it may seem, is unquestionably powerful, whether you believe its logical existence within the film or not.
This is made even more apparent by Lupita Nyong’o’s intoxicating performance. Her fear, and most importantly, her maternal instinct to protect, are breathtakingly genuine. She’s a character to fight for, and for a horror film, that’s a rare occasion. Every ounce of this film is.
"Us" is a work of fiction, sure, but Peele has found a way to cause paranoia where it used to never exist. Like Spielberg did with sharks, and Hitchcock with showers, Peele has effectively made me afraid of myself. Why is that? Because I believe the fear in this film, even if the logistics don't make any sense. I believe the terror associated with evil twins, clones, doppelgängers, and the physical embodiments of trauma. Call it speculative, call it sci-fi, call it bonkers - the point is, I felt more unease looking in the mirror this morning than I ever have before, and that is because Jordan Peele knows how to effectively get under the viewer's skin. That is the work of a true master filmmaker.
- Final Thoughts -
For some, “Us” will present an enigma that is mystifying yet uncrackable. After all, it’s what Peele does best. However, for those who take the time to soak in the film’s speculative world, you’ll be amazed by how much is being said without words. Jordan Peele has transcended cinema with his careful satirizing of horror tropes and thought-provoking commentary on reality, and it deserves your attention.
("Us" image courtesy of Entertainment Weekly)