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Off The Shelf: Us

Jordan Peele has cemented his legacy as a horror icon. With one stroke, Get Out proved to be not only a blockbuster phenomenon, but a rare cure for the Academy’s allergy to genre films (joining the ranks of Mad Max, and paving the way for Black Panther). Hardly two years removed from Get Out, Peele’s follow up has been one of the most anticipated films of 2019. Us is a film drenched in allegory and prophetic filmmaking with an exceptional dose of horror/comedy to boot. But has it lived up to the hype? 

For those of you unfamiliar, Us is an entirely original story involving the Wilson family as they’re antagonized by entities that bare an unspeakable likeness to themselves. As the film bares on, the stakes evolve and the Wilson’s are forced to endure a relentless amount of chaos and terror. By Peele’s own admission, the main theme at work here is that we, perhaps, are the danger to ourselves rather than external forces out of our control. But Us is filled with layer after layer of symbolism and allegory for larger pictures at work. Peele’s mind feels as though it’s stuffing the screen with metaphors that ultimately detract from the superb filmmaking at work. 

To break it down more precisely, let me first discuss the exceptional things about Us. In certain regards, this feels like a direct response to criticism that Peele’s penmanship outshines his directorial vision. Us is a visually stunning film, not only in the flawless lighting techniques and camera placement, but also the editing style that brings the picture together. Silhouettes feel effortlessly ominous in the hands of a clever filmmaker, but what Peele seems to perfectly understand is how effective the unseen can be. Simple moments like a character being stalked around a car are elevated by the camera’s point of view lingering on the hunted and never the hunter. Even early moments of the antagonists eerily positioned in front of the Wilson residence strike a cord of discomfort that viewers don’t often experience. And each sudden movement feels like an immediate threat regardless of direct violence. Credit should also be given to Mike Gioulakis who continues to prove himself as one of the greatest working cinematographers today (even just this year, Glass is masterfully shot, if nothing else). Peele’s editor on Us, Nicholas Monsour, also deserves a fair amount of credit. A standout moment in the film’s final act (one I’m very critical of for narrative reasons - more on that later) allows Monsour to flex his talents by juxtaposing an eloquent fight sequence with a significant event from the film’s past. Where Peele falls back on his comedic roots to subdue tension, Monsour wisely keeps the pace consistent enough to keep the audience at a level of unease. Danger is always lurking once the film ignites, and no matter how many times you may laugh, you will never forget it. 

Performances are also a major highlight of Us, with chief credit being given to Lupita Nyong’o for establishing convincing anxiety while also presenting what I imagine will be hailed as one of the most iconic villains of the 2010’s. The duality of Us inherently allows Nyong’o to shine, but the creation of the character certainly feels like a risk that pays off. Rather than bottling her rich emotional life in favor of a stoic, intimidating villain, Nyong’o gives both characters complete freedom to feel the height of their emotions while letting the script speak for itself. As a result, Red, the main antagonist of the film, is easily the most compelling character. Even with a spare number of scenes, Red is chilling and emotionally rich to the point of both relatability and unrest. Revelations of Red may convolute the narrative, but the pristine strides in her physical movements and the bone chilling dryness of her voice are enough to hook the audience from the moment she appears. The rest of the cast carries the film well, each nailing the relatable anxiety and comedy within the eccentric circumstances whilst relishing the creepy characteristics of their doppelgängers. But shadow characters are generally resigned to caricatures, whereas Red has a lot more to work with. Which brings me to the major pitfalls of Us

I should warn readers in advance, Us is a difficult film to discuss critically without devolving into spoiler territory. I will do my very best to explain my issues without diving deep into specifics, but my recommendation is to revisit this section of the review after viewing so you can better understand my points. 

With that, I can admit that a large majority of my complaints with Us are in the narrative itself. The first act is a gradual build of tension, whereas the second act is a tense action thriller with a slew of entertaining moments that raise a tremendous amount of questions. The third act is the most problematic because it completely disregards those questions and adds puzzling additions to them. The film’s final twist is so inefficiently expanded on that it actually acts more as a detriment than anything. You’ll find yourself revisiting elements of the film and scratching your head rather than feeling the paramount reveal in the way that it is intended. And what’s worse is Peele’s dedication to allegory within it. Us is a film so swamped in perceived metaphors that it actually ends up drowning in them. The shadow world, if taken at face value, is completely unspecific. Under any scrutiny, the world building suffers from crumbling under the sheer amount of questions it forces the audience to ask. But if taken metaphorically, the various specifics of Peele’s underworld are so vast and nondescript that they completely distract from the narrative. And even worse, if Peele intends for the allegories to be the purpose of his film, then he loses all tension and suspense as a consequence. If I was never meant to care for the character’s of Us, then they’re entirely inconsequential. This leads me to believe that the answer lies somewhere in between symbolism and sincerity. A hodgepodge of ideas struggling to breakthrough the befuddling world building. The problem is not that Us forces the audience to ask questions. The problem is that it forces those questions too soon and ends up distracting the audience from experiencing the film first. And the final twist seems to spit in the face of everything that came before it, only leaving bigger holes in the world building than before. 

The only other glaring problem I have with Us is a pet peeve I have in all horror. Sort of in line with the aforementioned issues, several characters narrowly escape death through sheer fortune of writing. Now, I don’t mean that in the sense of, “the car came *this close* to hitting them,” or something. I mean villains specifically give the heroes far too many opportunities to survive and save each other than is altogether necessary. Some of these scenarios are explained through logical conclusions and an understanding of the plan at work. But these entirely deflate tension with the understanding being that certain characters are not permitted to kill others, therefore there is no real threat. Other scenarios are never explained, and leave me frustrated at the convenient fortune of the heroes in spite of logic. 

Us is the type of movie I hate to grade. In certain regards, it’s a technical masterpiece that demonstrates exactly why Jordan Peele is hailed as a modern cinematic genius. In other regards, it showcases one of the most frustrating narratives of the year thus far. Regardless, it makes me feel guilty as a critic to prod a filmmaker that consistently makes audiences applaud mid-viewing. Peele’s films are so infectious and exhilarating that it feels almost wrong to judge. But at the same time, those praises of his ability to captivate are exactly why he must be held to a high standard. I have no doubt that Peele is a filmmaker to watch as he continues this journey in his career. And even if Us is not my most critically adored film, I still recommend experiencing it with an audience solely so you can feel the same mesmerizing quality that Peele makes look so effortless. 7.5/10