It took me almost 6 months to watch “Get Out”. I know I know, stupid me. It was phenomenal. Everything I could’ve asked for and more. I was late to the party on “The Key & Peele Show”. I swear, I love black content creators; I really do. I don’t think I had cable at the time and Comedy Central never puts their stuff on other platforms. I was determined to not let this happen again and I was in my comfy reserved seat here in Atlanta Thursday night eagerly anticipating something special.
Leading up to that night, I heard and read the responses to the SXSW screening reactions. I got a lot of, “I’m processing”, “my jaw is on the floor”, “I can’t put my thoughts into words.” Come on. “Us” is my most anticipated film of 2019 and all I wanted was a simple response. Is it good? Or; is it bad? Didn’t seem too hard. That trailer we got on Christmas day was the best of the year for me and everything in it was perfect. How heavy could this movie really be?
Heavy is an understatement.
Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their 2 kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) make a trip back to their presumed summer home which just happens to be the childhood home where Adelaide grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. Adelaide is troubled by a traumatic event she endured when she was a kid where now creepy events and coincidences signal to her this trip will be gravely different than the last. Little does she know a family outside her driveway one night will change their lives as they invade the Wilson’s home and reveal themselves to be; themselves. I mean “Us”, no “Them”.
Gosh I’m starting to confuse myself. They’re Doppelgangers!
This was easy to get, and what we were marketed in the trailers. At that point we had 3 months to ratchet our expectations up to the maximum. Is that fair? That’s not the most important question. Fair, is a place where they judge pigs. I’ve said before I didn’t have nor want the luxury of not seeing the trailer to set up my expectations. I want to be fully apart of the conversation and even more now that the movie has debuted nationwide. However, I fear the gravity of this film will have more audiences projecting their personal sentiments toward the social commentary of the film and less focus on the compositional elements and the narrative.
I will do my best to steer this review towards the technical merits and of course the plot. It’s difficult to not let the themes seep in though. This film oozes with symbolism. So much so you can spend hours trying to dissect the hidden and not so hidden meanings in every frame.
Additionally, “Us” must battle the expectation Jordan Peele has after his Oscar winning film “Get Out” was a smash hit 2 years ago. Would this be a hit too? Could this be a sophomore slump? We know that Peele is carving out a unique space for himself in the Horror genre. I’ve hear it expressed in twitter circles as “Social Horror”. I’m not totality in love with that as I feel most creators will commentate on society in some way expressed in their given medium. Regarding “Get Out” the social commentary was much more straight forward and easily digestible. In “Us” not so much.
There’s a dozen or so things I feel Jordan Peele is trying to say about us in “Us.” I’d like to try this exorcise in not removing the thematic elements expressed but shift them to the background so to align the critical focus. “Us” is ambitious. “Us” is challenging. But is it good? You know, that question I was begging for before watching the movie. After 2 viewings; it is. My initial watch was complex. I was burdened with trying to resolve the social themes expressed while attempting to breakdown everything else. I didn’t want to fall into the trap and lose sight of what I watched so I walked away not that knocked off my socks.
The plot isn’t simple. But it’s not overly complicated either. Its Peele’s execution that is challenging. A family is being terrorized by another and I’m sitting and waiting to understand why and how come. In the 1st 2 acts we get some of that although done exceptionally well. Peele’s distinct style is on display even more in this film compared to “Get Out” and it’s refreshing. He builds the suspense in a very organic way. It also helps when you have such a strong cast of actors giving A+ performances. It should be known that this film is one of, if not the first to depict a central black family as the presumed protagonists. I say presumed because, I’ll get to that later. Jordan Peele in a lot of ways breaks a lot of the conventions the Horror genre and its tropes of the genre while at the same time could’ve rested on sticking with a few rules or 2.
The pacing in the 1st half of the film worked very well and supplied suspense too. There was restraint in Peele’s direction elevated by Lupita’s performance that made everything come together expertly. Adelaide is feeling the weight of this ominous threat. It’s never overhanded, and Lupita gives an Oscar Caliber performance in this film throughout. She’s reserved, yet fierce. Subtle yet striking. Her duality in character is matched by her duality in role as she plays her counterpart, “Red” as well. Red is the shadow to Adelaide. They are tethered. It takes a little while to get to the point in the film where the catalyst happens however, the home invasion is the start of it all. Peele’s tone is the right amount of thriller/ suspense with appropriate dollops of comedy. The comedy is fully dispensed by Gabe.
There was something about Winston Duke, that just didn’t do it for me up until this role. He was great. Gabe is the ultimate Dad Joke personified. There’s a great juxtaposition between Gabe’s physical stature and his palpitating dweebiness. Because Peele chose to write in Gabe’s comedy to be singular, it cuts through a lot of the high-tension moments in scenes timely and appropriately. If the comedy was equally distributed by the family, this film could veer campy quick.
Underneath all of this is Michael Abel’s gripping score that feels like a character unto itself. The orchestral and operatic notes married with tribal tones and drums intensifies the scene when needed and provides levity in others. The sound mixing between what is happening in the narrative and for the audience is blended beautifully. Music is what is driving and informing our expectations throughout and the classic “I’ve Got 5 on it” track waits patiently till the climax to build and deliver one of my most memorable Horror Movie finishes I can remember.
I’ve spoken very glowingly of the movie and still feel that way. Even after my 2nd viewing, that watch helped me gain a better respect and appreciation for Jordan Peele’s direction and ambition. It can’t be left unsaid though, that while I love so many moments in this film his precision and execution when it comes to the script left much to be desired.
As an avid Horror Movie watcher, I can delight in the way Peele, breaks convention. Doing something different is refreshing, but when not done well its glaring. There’s so much symbolism in the text I feel there was a lack of focus on the narrative. There was a risk he took setting up the rules of his Movie Monster. The choice to make the Doppelgangers existence a matter of science instead of supernatural didn’t work. We’re asked to suspend so much logic in this film its unearned. There’s dumps of exposition in 2 prominent scenes that without them, in the way this world is set up you’d be completely loss and unsatisfied. This appears to be a matter of taste as I recognize there’s a contingent of the viewing audience that claim “Us” is one of the greatest Horror Films ever. I wholeheartedly disagree with that.
Let’s not mistake flare and ambition for greatness. Someone can be innovative and have faults too. The Doppelgangers are a great way to symbolize the many themes stated in the film. The marginalized, the less fortunate, the cast out. But, were still left with questions like; how did they come to be? Was it a machine? Was it cloning? When did this project from those above start? When was the project abandoned? Where did they go? How did the tethered survive underground, unfound for decades? Where did they get their red jumpsuits and sandals? Why Gold Shears?
I could go on and on. This may seem like small unimportant details but they’re not. The writing and direction hold the most weight critically a film. While I celebrate the direction, because of the weaknesses in the script Peele’s vision becomes muddled and feels incoherent when when we know he’s capable of delivering something far superior. It almost feels like an over sight. That’s why I believe the commentary clouded the plot. There was more care in the sub text, the context was ignored. When that happens, you sacrifice the most poignant part of the movie.
As we continue throughout the night and the next day following the Wilsons narrowly escape not only their Doppelgangers but their neighbor’s and later find out a whole town full. Adelaide is chasing Red down to the very place the 2 encountered one another when she was a child. There’s inter-cutting of images from the past with our progression in the present setting up the ultimate showdown between Red and Adelaide. Adelaide kills Red, but for a stark moment we see a reversion of Adelaide’s character. Something primal, guttural. She wraps her handcuffed arms around Red’s neck and squeezes the life out of her and warps into a “Tethered” like mania. This is the 1st real glimpse into a nature we’ve never seen in Adelaide. A few moments later after the family leaves Santa Cruz, we get the inter-cutting of images finishing the scene and first encounter between Adelaide and Red while she’s driving. We see that Adelaide was the tethered little girl all along and switched places to become the new Adelaide and Red, Red was left in a world she never knew. Stunted in growth. Different than everyone else; doomed to a meaningless existence without direction.
The text, is powerful. The execution not so much. It felt forced and unnecessary. The way the world was set up, the twist wasn’t earned and there are many who felt it coming so the payoff wasn’t sweet. It didn’t carry enough weight. We’re so wrapped up in the hidden meanings we lose sight of Red’s goals and the deficiency in her plan. Adelaide’s goal was to get her son back and keep her family safe, but her behavior towards the ordeal doesn’t ring true to a woman hiding a secret that could unravel her core identity. Did she repress the abduction? Why does she go back to this town annually, knowing what lies beneath? The rules aren’t set, they’re undefined or completely loose. Who controls who? Why and when?
Touching a little on the themes, the commentary about any one group or groups of people controlling another knowingly or not is strong. It speaks to where we are now in society and the weight our actions have on those around and under us. The movie is about Class. It is about dealing with who we are. There’s a big Nature vs Nurture conversation Jordan Peele is having. If given the opportunity, can the marginalized rise and show equal value too? Does that work in reverse? Why do we let fear hold so much power? Those are incredible questions Peele is making us ask ourselves. There are probably 100’s of more questions to ask. My favorite compositionally, is who are we rooting for? The Tethered are existing without direction or the opportunity of upward mobility. How fare is that to them? How ignorant are we to live in real life pretending we are where we are on the backs of those we don’t even know? There’s so much to sink your teeth into, in this movie. That’s why it’s great. There’s a better way to tighten the script that would’ve also made it that much greater, to truly earn “G.O.A.T” status.
Although this film is stylized suspense filled horror, anchored by solid performances and a great score; Jordan Peele lacks a narrative focus with the script that’s begging for more supernatural ambiguity to help us suspend disbelief. Hess more focused on the commentary and so are we. our natural disposition to project our own feelings toward them has us in our seats enjoying this fresh entry to the genre but feeling unsatisfied in the end. While not a great movie. Certainly not a bad one either!
KOLBYTOLDME RATING- 7/10
Director: Jordan Peele
Writers: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elizabeth Moss
Run Time: 116 mins