Movie Review: Us
By Matthew Huntley
April 2, 2019
“Us” is a more-intriguing-than-average horror thriller that hooks and holds us by slowly (sometimes too slowly) connecting disparate elements and pieces of information. It also leaves wanting more, which can be good, but only up to a certain point.
Consider what we learn at the beginning: subtitles tell us there are thousands of miles of underground tunnels scattered throughout the United States, which currently serve no real purpose; in 1986, a little girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry), celebrating her birthday at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk with her two bickering parents (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Anna Diop), wanders off to the beach and enters a funhouse with the tagline, “Find Yourself,” and inside the hall of mirrors she sees a startling reflection; in a brightly lit classroom in an unknown location, blood-red credits appear against a close-up of a white rabbit as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal several more just like it, all while the film’s unsettling anthem plays on the soundtrack.
How all of these components connect is the question that will keep us intellectually engaged in the film’s plot, which won’t become clear until the end, but even then, we’re left scratching our heads somewhat.
In the meantime, the story fast-forwards to the “present day,” when a now grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) has just arrived with her family – goofy but loving husband Gabe (Winston Duke); smartphone-addicted, teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph); and Halloween-mask-wearing, pre-pubescent son, Jason (Evan Alex) – at their Santa Cruz beach house. The Wilsons’ situation seems happy enough, but as soon as Adelaide steps out of the car, she can’t help but think something is off.
And indeed something is off, which Adelaide senses even more at the beach, where they meet up with their friends, the Tylers, a more affluent but evidently less happy family comprised of wife Kitty (Elizabeth Moss), husband Josh (Tim Heidecker) and twin teenage daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Kitty asks Adelaide, “You good?”, but she’s clearly not, and she nearly has a heart attack when she sees Jason wander off to the same funhouse she did over 30 years ago.
If that little incident wasn’t traumatic enough, later that night, four creepy individuals appear silhouetted in the Wilson’s driveway. When the family gets a closer look at them, they see they’re near-identical replicas of themselves, right down to their facial movements and body language. Before long, these mostly mute doppelgängers, each dressed in a red jump suit and wielding razor-sharp golden scissors, attacks their counterpart. Suddenly, what started out as a seemingly normal and harmless family vacation becomes an all-out battle for survival as the Wilsons (and apparently everybody else in the world) engage in a fight with…well, themselves, or some twisted, murderous version of them.
Divulging any more about the plot would doing the movie a disservice, since much of the fun and suspense of “Us” relies on its bridging and answering questions about its bizarre happenings. But despite all the action and mayhem that ensues, the film is surprisingly quiet and understated, not to mention intentionally humorous and brimming with slapstick antics, all of which writer-director Jordan Peele fits seamlessly into the craziness. This is a gruesome, gory and ultra-violent horror movie to be sure, but it’s one that swerves in and out of the genre’s lines with such grace and confidence that it’s easy to think of it just as rightly as a comedy, drama and even science fiction. This isn’t a total shocker when you consider part of Peele’s inspiration for the film came from an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” Rod Serling’s classic TV show that was a trailblazer when it came to genre mixing.
But as watchable and entertaining as “Us” often is, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it exemplary. It may live up to its categorization of horror, but I didn’t find it especially scary or unnerving. That’s probably because the film seems too preoccupied with violence and gore, while it doesn’t devote enough time to the characters reflecting on their current situation. It simply shows them reacting to it, and what we mostly get is a series of scenes in which the heroes must either beat, stab, shoot, cut, suffocate, run over, or break the necks of their attackers. This is all well and good for fans of the genre, but even the most dedicated horror viewers will admit this onslaught of one brutal scene after another can be numbing, and by the time an explanation of the madness comes to light, I found myself exhausted and not caring as much.
Peele’s direction is slow and steady, which is a nice change of pace for a horror movie since so many these days play out as if they’re in a rush. But the patience “Us” exhibits merely builds toward the next big kill or intense fight, and not necessarily toward an interesting aspect of the story or additional characters development. When the plot threads finally do come full circle, what we get is only suggestively deep but not actually all that profound. It leaves too many questions unanswered, and because the movie has all but drained us with its violence and devastation and not really stimulated us with substance, we walk away from it satisfied but also a little letdown.
Peele is, of course, the mastermind behind the new classic and Oscar-winning horror film, “Get Out” (2017), which I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning until the end of this review. I didn’t want to simply compare his two movies since “Us,” like any film, should be viewed independently and judged on its own merits. I’m sure many critics will use “Get Out” as a standard by which to critique “Us,” and how could they not, given the former’s highly lauded reception and appeal? But I was especially mindful to go into “Us” with an impartial point of view, and I can justifiably say it holds its own as an entertaining horror movie that’s weird, funny, visceral, and playfully runs its enthusiastic cast through the wringer.
But, on the flip side, in an era of films like “Get Out,” which raised the bar as far as horror is concerned and reminded us the genre can be just as well-suited for social commentary and humor as it is for scares, “Us” is not exactly special. It seems hesitant to take itself above and beyond the limits of its multiple genres by focusing too much on style and not enough on its narrative possibilities, and even though Peele has allegedly said he wanted to it to be more horrific than cerebral, its story demands more. A horror movie can be primarily dreadful without going overboard and, in turn, balance the dread with substance so the audience doesn’t get burned out. Maybe this “front-loaded with style and violence” strategy was intentional because Peel and the studio intend to make a sequel, which they’ll use to provide more answers and give the entire story a deeper resonance, but even if they do, I still wish I didn’t leave “Us” wanting more of what it didn’t offer.