Published on April 11th, 2019 | by Damien Straker
Us – Film Review
Reviewed by Damien Straker on the 11th of April 2019
Universal presents a film by Jordan Peele
Produced by Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick and Jordan Peele
Written by Jordan Peele
Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker and Cali and Noelle Sheldon
Music by Michael Abels
Cinematography Mike Gioulakis
Edited by Nicholas Monsour
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Date: the 28th of March 2019
Us is not as strong as Jordan Peele’s previous feature, Get Out (2016), but it is still a highly entertaining film. The weight of expectations would always challenge Peele because Get Out remains one of the best American films of recent years. It was extraordinary because of how forthright it was about its politics. From the beginning, it articulated a funny and horrifying exploration of race relations. Comparatively, the ambiguity of Us is fun for a while but becomes a notable shortcoming once the story threads fail to merge in a completely satisfying manner.
It opens brilliantly with a painfully tense sequence at a darkening theme park. It is 1986 and a little girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) is seen with her parents, but instead of being watched closely, she is allowed to wander off into the night. She walks past a man with a doomsday sign (important) and then strolls down a flight of stairs towards the sand. As it rains, she takes shelter inside a shadowy hall of mirrors. Years later, Adelaide (12 Years a Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o) is now a mother and married to Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke). They have two children, Jason (Evan Alex) who likes magic tricks and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who is encouraged to persist with the school track and field team.
The family journey to their beach house in Santa Cruz for a summer vacation. It is located near the old theme park from Adelaide’s childhood. She is still haunted by the experience and is understandably reluctant to return to the area. Her protectiveness of her children intensifies when she briefly loses sight of Jason while everyone is sun-baking on the beach. As Gabe talks to his white friend, Josh (Tim Heidecker), on the sand, Adelaide resists engaging with his wife, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss). Though she persists in talking about having work done on her neck.
Kitty’s teenage daughters (twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon) are also creepy and unpleasant to Jason. When Adelaide and her family return to their beach house and prepare to sleep they are confronted by a terrifying image. A family, completely identical to them, is now waiting outside their home. They are all dressed in red jumpsuits and carrying gold scissors. The actors all play their doppelgangers, the most memorable of whom is Nyong’o’s second character, Red, the leader of the attacking family.
The first half of Us is a sensational viewing experience that grips us with eerie sounds and images. In a packed screening, there were many times I laughed aloud at the dry humour and felt scared for Adelaide’s family as the danger closed in on them. Jordan Peele has an incredible grip on how to create tension from setups and the specificity of his images. The pain of watching Adelaide walk alone at night, seeing her pass the man with the sign, and then drop her toffee apple on the sand is as haunting as almost any scene in Get Out. Similarly, the way Peele takes the time to unleash the doppelganger family and the weird tongue clicking sounds Red makes are unlike anything we have experienced in a film recently. There are other unique touches, including the way the camera retreats during a credit sequence to reveal a cage of rabbits, mostly white and a few black, pressed against a wall. It is comforting and scary being in the hands of a director determined to defy conventions.
Peele’s signature imprint, juxtaposing horror and comedy, is embodied by his actors. Many people have spoken about how impressive Lupita Nugo’s haunted performance is. She ensures that Adelaide is visibly shaken by her childhood but also highly protective and alert. She is determined to shield her children from similar pain. As her doppelganger, Red, she is also terrifying with the way she uses a chilling, raspy voice to impose herself. In contrast, Winston Duke is hilarious as Gabe, the embarrassing father trying to make the best of the family vacation. Some of his quips, such as ‘the magic room’, are hysterical and so too are his attempts to impress the family with a wobbly boat that he can barely control. His self-depreciating humour makes the family likeable and characterises Us as a warped, gothic version of National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983).
The film is weakened by the amount of time dedicated to the home invasion compared to the story bookends. The violent skirmishes inside the beach house and on the water form the bulk of the story, while the tunnels under America that Peele alludes to in the opening become an after-thought. While the house skirmishes can be jaw-dropping, especially the use of pop music paired with graphic violence, it is as though Peele had two ideas but was unsure of how to unite them. Comparing it to the lesser parts of Get Out, the mad scheme, is apt. Us is plotted on a much larger scale, but the weak ending and the major twist do not have enough time to manifest. Peele is commenting on society’s haves and have nots, but the ambiguity lessens the impact of his message and the clarity of his thematic aims. Similarly, the family is likable and have clear traits, but Peele is still learning to deepen his characters. Only Adelaide possesses a backstory that carries enough emotional weight to determine her actions.
Regardless of the story’s flaws, more than half of this film is gripping, funny and full of effective scares. Peele knows how to toy with the audience, how to make them look in one direction, before pulling the rug out from beneath them. It will be interesting to see if his talents with the camera and his penchant for brutal atmosphere and memorable images can be paired with a screenplay that deepens the characters without the convoluted plot devices. Us is both enjoyable and slightly disappointing when seeing the clever aspects of Peele’s filmmaking draw tantalisingly close together before drifting apart.
Summary: Us is both enjoyable and slightly disappointing when seeing the clever aspects of Peele's filmmaking draw tantalisingly close together before drifting apart.