Us is a thematically rich scare ride
The biggest scare in Us was set up two years ago, when Jordan Peele made Get Out and convinced your horror-averse friends and family that a movie this socially probing was worth seeing, even if it was going to be a little creepy. And Get Out was scary, but it was also a movie so starkly honest about race that it drew in anybody interested in keeping up with the cultural conversation. With Us, Peele has flipped Get Out's 70% social issues/30% horror ratio, and when things heat up (and they heat up fast), it's all the more terrifying because you probably hadn't expected him to go this far. I have family who saw Get Out, who will walk into Us expecting more Get Out, and who will be digging their fingers into their arm rests twenty minutes in. It's almost an act of defiance on Peele's part: If you want to accept me, you also have to accept the horror genre.
Us is a home invasion movie where a family of four is assaulted by their doppelgangers. It's a film that really relishes in its surprise left turns, and ideally you'll see it without having read this review, knowing only who made it and what genre it belongs to. Maybe not even that. If you haven't made it out to the theater yet, I'd save this review for later.
Because when the doppelgangers show up, the movie flows at a perfect pace, always changing the tension and raising the stakes at what feels like the right time. Once we finally escape the house we expect to be trapped in all film long, we find out there are an untold number of other evil doppelgangers running around. Soon after that's established, we get a Night of the Living Dead-style news report laying one of Us' central metaphors bare. There are influences that make sense (Funny Games) and ones that come out of nowhere but work (a Radiohead video and a Simpsons episode both, I think, inform set-pieces).
It's an intense, gory movie about small details. There's symmetry at work that's both underlined (Hands Across America serves as a bookend and a visual motif) and seemingly incidental (a scuzzball working a midway game wears a My War-era Black Flag shirt in the 80s, and a grating child of privilege wears a generic Black Flag logo tee in the present), and it all means something, because we're dealing with an artist who focuses on those little details.
Example: Much of the film takes place at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and we hear a stray line of dialogue in a 1986-set section that somebody is filming a movie on the carousel. This is two seconds of the movie most people probably wouldn't think twice about. But I grew up an hour away from this boardwalk. I've been there a hundred times and know parts of the 1987 film Lost Boys were shot there. I had a little theory about why Lost Boys got an elliptical shout out and how that tied into another of-its-era prop that "lucky" timing has transformed from an informative piece of history into a sledgehammer. After the screening, I googled "us jordan peele lost boys" and had that theory confirmed through another website's interview. If I hadn't grown up 40 miles from Santa Cruz, this would have passed me by completely. When you spot something like that, something simultaneously tiny and fully-intended, you're left with the thought "What didn't I pick up on?" With Us, the answer is an exciting "I don't know." I only know how much fun it's going to be combing through it on repeat viewings.
Let's go back to the Black Flag shirts for a second. I think that's supposed to represent the cheapening of outsider culture as it's co-opted by the people it initially railed against. The child of privilege shows up once more, in a Dead Kennedys shirt, and the disconnect there-- that a band whose first album opens with the satire "Kill the Poor" is now repped by a teen girl who maybe wouldn't mind other people killing the poor-- is massive. And Black Flag and Dead Kennedys are both bands more or less still functioning in the present day, despite their most iconic singers having long since moved on. The bands themselves represent the cheapening of outsider culture.
I want to say that this is too much, that I'm clearly overreaching in college-essay-at-3AM mode. But in that interview I found, Peele said he planted three references to Corey Feldman in the movie. Those references are, in order: the obscured nod to Lost Boys, a shirt with Feldman's buddy Michael Jackson, and a short line from Feldman's character Mouth in Goonies. This film moves. It is scary, it is perfectly acted, it is thrilling. And its creator is on the record about using Corey Feldman as a symbol, in a movie where nobody actually mentions Corey Feldman. There are layers here. We are watching a filmmaker who is both smarter than us and interested in creating a dense series of clues, and when you realize that, all bets are off.
We're also watching a filmmaker whose turn to horror a couple years ago surprised a lot of people. He was and is a comedy writer, and so Us is funny at times because Peele is too talented to not make it funny. There are people who can just tell a story and make it engaging, and he's got that gift (or curse-- it led to the Golden Globes calling Get Out a comedy). You can see Peele thinking up these hilarious riffs and then figuring out how to keep them in the final cut. There's too much chemistry in the family to make them all keep a rigidly straight face.
I haven't talked much about that family, but they all do great work. Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke are great as a married couple who get each other but also get under each other's skin. The actors playing their kids, Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph, are incredible not just for child actors, but as straight, unqualified performers. It's easy to forget all four of them are also playing evil versions of themselves when both the regular and "tethered" (a term that could go on to be as widely referenced as Get Out's "sunken place") personalities are so different.
It looks beautiful, too. There's an extended shot with a split diopter lens that allows Nyong'o screen time as both victim and terrorizer and it accentuates Lupita's performance and really gets across how good she's doing. She won't win the Oscar in eleven months, but she should. She should win it twice.
I don't want to make Us sound like a Hellraiser puzzle box, because you don't need to "solve" this thing to get anything out of it. This is still a movie whose marketing centered on people who all wear red, hide in the shadows and strike out with long pairs of scissors. The deeper intent is there, but you don't have to make a mental conspiracy map with string and thumbtacks to get through it. Us will mess you up, regardless of how many background queues you overanalyze. It's still a movie where Winston Duke #2 bashes Winston Duke #1 in the leg with an aluminum bat.
This is a movie, by my interpretation, about the haves and have-nots. Nobody deserves to be the tethered any more than they do the people lying on the beach. It just shook out that way. And the have-nots are pissed. Hands Across America was a charity event/publicity stunt that raised money and awareness for the hungry and homeless. People held hands and formed a line from one U.S. coast to the other. Except there were a bunch of gaps in the line and half of the money raised didn't actually go to the people it was originally supposed to serve. You learn about Hands Across America in your own way, but you've probably heard about it at some point. And that's what this is about-- there are people we're ignoring and only making the slightest, most self-serving gestures to aid. The doppelgangers aren't educated, but one of them got access to dance lessons before being locked away and she flourished. They aren't stupid, just deprived. It's a very "there, but for the grace of God, go I" scenario. And it's about trauma. It's about the trauma we don't deal with, and the way childhood innocence can get beat out of you and leave you scrambling to adjust for the rest of your life (check out those Corey Feldman references).
I initially thought the final twist, delivered with only a couple minutes to go in the running time, undermined the movie. It seemed to say that being born in a bad situation kept you bad, that no matter what you did, you were still the person you started as. The more I think about it, the more I think the twist is saying you'll carry your childhood trauma with you your entire life, but that it doesn't make you any less of a person as you work to move on from it. And we deal with that shit. Our families deal with that shit. We're forced to. The thoughts, prayers and human walls of the overprivileged aren't helping.
Us opens in Philly theaters today.