Us

Us ★★★½

(spoilers in the 3rd paragraph, but not until then. I'll mention it when I get there)

Let me join the chorus of gratitude toward Jordan Peele for entering the mainstream horror movie scene with two films now that elevate the genre's intelligence, vivacity, entertainment value, diversity, overall craftsmanship, and potential for social reflection. "Us" is complex and bold in a way that will linger in the pop culture conversation much longer than most scary movies we get fed by studios. Its legacy precedes it. Maybe if more filmmakers from this neighborhood knew how to goose an audience with as much Hitchcockian theatricality as Peele, they could get their personal passion projects funded and up on 3,500+ screens nationwide too. But what's even better than the ratcheting suspense, intense eeriness of the expertly engineered mise en scene, bountiful comic relief, bravura performance by Lupita Nyong'o, and gorgeous production values is that this isn't a passive horror flick. It isn't just trying to give you nightmares and tell you a crazy midnight tale about evil shadow dopplegangers coming to get you. That would be enough, really, but Peele also has points to make about certain damages in American society, ideas to interconnect about our lip service paid to caring about the underprivileged and what is revealed about people when the shoe is on the other foot, in more ways than one. The imagery used to impart this subtext is carefully considered and often effective (I also noticed that in the very first scene, among the VHS tapes on the shelf next to the TV the girl is watching are "The Goonies" and "C.H.U.D.", both of which prominently represent what this movie is trying to do, albeit more literally than allegorically).

Look, I have a lot of respect for what "Us" is all about and what it's aiming for, and I hope Jordan Peele makes a whole career out of these "Twilight Zone" concept movie ideas (and not just on his CBS "Twilight Zone" reboot). Eventually one will hit me just the right way and I'll have a work of his to call my own, but just as "Get Out" excelled in so many ways while nonetheless lacking in a few key others, "Us" feels like 2/3rds of a great picture. It's not that I disliked the thematic quilt Peele was revealing in the final act, but its overly elliptical presentation of them diminishes the impact by some amount, and the many distracting punctures in the narrative don't help either. I'm not some didactic nerd who needs a thorough explanation of everything he sees on screen; I can appreciate, even prefer subtlety and the lingering unknown when it comes to storytelling, but come on, we're just supposed to accept a vague one-scene exposition dump as the answer to pretty much everything? I was invested in this situation, in the characters who are victimized by it and the mystery of what it all means, so despite what Peele is saying about us beyond the plot, the plot wrap-up itself is pretty damn lazy and arbitrarily absurd. It's all merely symbolic, I suppose, and we're supposed to focus on the bigger picture ideas it evokes, but there's something kind of dumb about how it all works. Not to mention that as good as it felt to get so many moments of levity during the movie (Wilson Duke providing most of them and doing a swell job of it), there might have been too many? And they sometimes undermined the spell being cast in a creepy scene? Almost felt like a Marvel movie, where it can't last more than a couple minutes without breaking the tension for a quip or some silly behavior or sight gag. I think it might've been a little better if he'd reserved these bits for when we really needed them, instead of peppering them practically nonstop throughout it all.


(full-on spoilers from here on out) The occult did it! That's it? Government-developed mysticism! The End! Among other questions, how are the copies made? How do they always mimic the behavior of people above ground? What makes this one so special that she escaped, or rather, because the escape route is wide open, why didn't any other Tethereds figure it out too? Who made sure that upside down world Adelaide had the exact same family? Does it happen organically somehow, or are there actual lab technicians monitoring all life up there and creating these Tethered family units as soon as they come to exist up there? If the whole experiment was abandoned, why did they let all those Tethered people live and roam free? How is it that fairly young children are still being created if the experiment was abandoned? Was it abandoned only recently? And why can the son control his alter ego's movements so perfectly? Is it just that the Tethered version of him happens to be prone to mimicry more than the other Tethered family members?

And I'm sorry to nitpick, but the movie kind of ends the same way as "Get Out" - the hero, having become a badass survivor, descends into an elaborate, elegantly decorated subterranean villain's lair beneath the surface of the movie's most important location, where long-awaited exposition about sinister science experiments is delivered and final bloody showdowns with the antagonists occur. It's not a crime or anything, and makes sense in the context of this world he creates for "Us", but it's nonetheless derivative of the last movie he made.

Finally, not a criticism of the movie itself, but rather the marketing strategies of Hollywood studios - I was shown this trailer multiple times in front of other movies for the past few months. It's an incredibly good trailer. However, it spoils the very last twist to a degree. In it we see the scene where childhood Adelaide is in the hall of mirrors and sees the girl who looks just like her. We see that other girl turn around, smile, and reach out to choke Adelaide. Spooky! Yet in the movie itself, we see this encounter in the very beginning and again throughout the story, but never the choking part, so I kept waiting for it to happen, wondering why it hadn't. By the end after gathering various hints, when we revisit this scene one last time and the choking finally occurs, it had already dawned on me that Red had attacked Adelaide and possibly replaced her. Come on, you trailer-making sons of bitches. Don't include clips from a big twist that happens in the last 2 minutes of a movie. How hard is it not to.

In the end, I think I'll like this movie even more if and when I see it again down the road. Its imperfections will matter less as time goes on. Predictable or not, that was a juicy twist at the end. And the concept itself of a vast underground science project managed by our own government and then abandoned really stokes the imagination. For now I still wish there were more interesting explanations for a lot of the individually disturbing moments from that awesome trailer, like when the son approaches a scarecrow-type man on the beach whose fingers are dripping blood. The payoff doesn't equal the initial allure there, but you can't win 'em all.

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