Movie Reviews: Us (2019)

I mentioned earlier in the week that despite being the higher profile horror release, Us wasn’t even my most anticipated of the week.  It may have had the great prereviews coming in and more importantly its creator Jordan Peele was fresh off the great horror title Get Out, but my expectations were distinctly lower.  Part of it was the trailer which looked like it was setting itself up to rip off all the parts of It Follows that Truth or Dare hadn’t already helped itself to, but the weight of expectation was also heavy with it.  Thankfully, my first issue proved to not be a problem, the latter however… we’ll get to that.

As discussed with the release of the Horror Noire documentary (which heavily featured Peele and heavily focused on his first and prior to this only film), the field of Black horror is one that has been underserved in both quality and quantity over the years.  Once again, Peele foregrounds a Black story, but this time out, the race is a less essential component of the story itself.  Race informs certain aspects of the characters and there’s an undercurrent to specific scenes, but as a whole, this is a story that could have been done with an all or mostly white cast.  While there’s certainly some disappointment to be had if you are comparing it to its predecessor which deftly blended social satire and horror, it’s something I don’t mind seeing at all.  I don’t need to see Peele pigeonholed as a specific type of horror director and the first step to greater diversity in the genre is by making more traditional films in it with minorities.  Representation can still serve to alter the perspective being given and offer more variety to the viewer without being expected to inform the plot.

Us takes place in Santa Cruz, California, mostly in the present day, but starting in and with flashbacks to 1986.  In 1986, two parents and their child are vising the boardwalk there when the child, Adelaide, wanders off from her distracted father (played by Aquaman‘s Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and into a creepy house of mirrors called Merlin’s Forest on the beach.  While she is in there, she discovers someone who looks just like her, an experience that traumatizes her and leaves her silent for a time.  She does grow up normal (into Lupita Nyong’o) however with a husband (Person of Interest and Black Panther‘s Winston Duke doing a Jordan Peele impression) and two children of her own.  She’s managed to keep her past a secret however and despite maintaining a house on the water nearby, she’s avoided returning to that beach.

At the coercing of her husband though, the family heads back to the beach where she had suffered her trauma so many years before with two friends (Elizabeth Moss and a well if bizarrely cast Tim Heidecker) and their kids.  Adelaide starts noticing coincidences all around pairs and duplicates as the film nervously flirts with the paranoia subgenre, but as evidenced by the trailer and the very title of the film, that’s not the focus.  Instead it pivots to a home invasion film for a spell when doppelgängers for the whole family show up when the power goes out.  Home invasion movies can be done well for sure, but the section here focusing on it is relatively uninspired.

The doppelgängers serve as a sort of dark reflection for the characters and while being vague as possible here, Peele’s handling of them is a mixed bag.  They are a mixed bag in how well each are handled from a character standpoint with certain doppelgängers feeling more token or underdeveloped than others.  They are a mixed bag in terms of creepiness with their guttural yells lean more to the silly than intimidating, perhaps fitting in with the movie’s shift to more of a comedic tone.  It was also impossible to take a number of them seriously as threats even as the film went out of its way to try to make them menacing.  Just because they look just like us, it doesn’t make them inherently scary.  Nor does or crawling about or tilting your head to the side like a dog like seemingly every modern silent horror movie villain.  It’s when they behave just like their original but off that the doppelgängers work best.

The way the film seems to play fast and loose with its rules wouldn’t be a problem if the it could make up its mind how much it cared about its mythology, ultimately leaning too far into the “keep piling on complete nonsense”.   The film goes heavy on the foreshadowing including its early (completely unnecessary) screen talking of tunnels under the surface, many with no known purpose and the early part of the movie was basically spot all the Chekhov’s guns.

So far, I’ve been fairly harsh on the film, but Peele has crafted an effective overall experience.  The score may be stereotypical and overbearing, leaning heavily on the violin scare chords, but the soundtrack cues themselves are incredibly on point and well timed.  The attention has thus far gone to a great remix of an already great song and while not the only great cues, it does define how Peele mixes in the comedic elements to his horror film so well without ever sacrificing the latter. Nyong’o crafts both a strong female lead (who happens to be Black) and the film’s most effective villain in her dual role.  Duke, Moss, and Heidecker all do some really good stuff comedically, but this is Nyong’o’s film from beginning to end.  It’s also just shot (coincidentally by It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis) impressively and smoothly.  There’s not going to be any of the iconic images of Get Out, but in a genre where the camerawork tends to be utilitarian at best away from the art house, I’m still not too jaded to appreciate when the camerawork is actively aiding the experience.

That last sentence hints at the biggest problem and one of my big concerns going into Us, the mental comparisons to Get Out.  As I said earlier, I wasn’t upset that Peele moved away from satire and into more traditional horror.  It’s also clear his talent as a director hasn’t faded away.  Where Us does ultimately fall down in comparison is that Get Out stood out from the pack not just because it was very well made, but because it also offered audiences a kind of experience different from the ones they were used to.  Us has far less of that and not just in subject matter, but execution.  On its own, however, it’s a really good if flawed title that does plenty to make it worth seeking out.