Movie Review: Us
By Ben Gruchow
April 16, 2019
I’m going to try and do this without much in the way of spoilers. If you’re reading this disclaimer, it means I’ve more or less succeeded.
The sense of foreboding arrives even before the first image. There are over a thousand miles, we’re told by onscreen text, of underground tunnels and passages in the United States. They go unused, unmonitored, unknown—everything from old mine shafts, to outdated industrial infrastructure. When the first image does appear, it is not of tunnels; it’s an eighties-era TV room, with a little girl watching an ad for the Hands Across America benefit event. Then an ad for Santa Cruz Beach plays. Then we’re at the boardwalk with the little girl and her parents. Something rather alarming happens, and then we’re looking at a rabbit in its cage. Whatever is unfolding is already well underway by the time we’ve joined in—and, we suspect, past the point of no return.
Far more than his previous entry in this genre, Jordan Peele’s Us is a movie that knows it has no obligation to provide advance notice or coddling, and it doesn’t pretend to. It starts up on abstract threads of disquiet and unease from the beginning, and brings them to a boil before it rapidly broadens both its narrative and emotional canvas. It’s as airtight as any mystery in recent memory. I’ve seen it twice now, and I was even more impressed the second time around at the impression of a born filmmaker firing on all cylinders.
What’s most interesting to me is the movie’s structure, and how deathly it should be. As with Peele’s debut feature, 2017’s excellent Get Out, the hook is in the modifier. The home-invasion thriller is one of the most basic templates I can think of for a filmmaker to start from and still be able to deliver an effective result. We meet the soon-to-be-invaded protagonists, and we see a typical middle-class American family: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) on their way to Santa Cruz for a vacation in Adelaide’s childhood home. We’re told that Adelaide’s mother recently passed away, but we don’t need exposition to understand why Adelaide seems ill at ease on their arrival. We already know this is a place harboring past trauma, thanks to the opening scenes. The family takes a drive to the boardwalk, to reunite with old friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), and it feels like unsettling portents pile up just out of our field of vision. Jason wanders off and witnesses a disturbing sight; Kitty tells Adelaide that she fantasizes about killing Tim, and there’s more than a hint of wishful thinking. Then the home invasion takes place that night.
The modifier, as the movie’s trailers make clear, is that the four invaders are almost mirror images of our protagonists, with the same cast members playing both roles. The invaders, though, all wear red jumpsuits and carry lethally sharp scissors; none of them can talk save for Adelaide’s double, Red, and when she first speaks it’s as if she’s doing so for the first time in years, if ever. That first halting speech, framed as a storybook narrative, lays out the bones of the movie’s scenario (based on the trailer, I thought the explanation might be something along the lines of interdimensional overlap, but I was thankfully wrong). In doing so, Us unpacks themes that deepen in complexity as we get further into the story: the ways in which our actions and decisions affect those we don’t know or have no knowledge of, and how easy it is to lose conception of what it is to possess a human depth of feeling, without having access to our same individual level of self-awareness about that feeling.
The film does not, perhaps, explore these themes to the deepest possible levels of academic reasoning, but it is very sharp in making us aware of their elemental turbulence, and lends itself to an almost limitless expansion of scope. This imparts a gift onto a storytelling structure that would otherwise feel arrhythmic: we experience the typical events of the home-invasion thriller in a somewhat condensed way, doing a pretty superlative job at subtly shading in colors while staying within the lines of its framework. Then there’s a moment where the movie sketches right over those lines and begins building its own shape, redefining what we thought we were looking at, and the themes we’ve been exposed to reveal layers of implication and rationale. The movie technically has a twist ending, and it has the effect of making a second viewing of the movie ring in entirely different ways—but I hesitate to use that phrase, because the twist has really been there in plain sight for most of the running time, and the movie isn’t concealing anything so much as cheerfully allowing us to follow the path of our expectations.
Along the way, there are moments that mix horror with comedy to varying degrees, in startlingly effective ways. Jordan Peele long ago proved his instincts with the latter; his last film offered most of the evidence we’d ever need that he knew how to lace that comedy with enough bite, with sharp enough teeth, that we were usually on edge waiting for the material to take an unexpected swerve. The moments that lean more heavily on comedy tend to show up earlier in the film, before the invasion plot kicks into gear—although there’s any number of setups that pay off afterward (the one that springs most readily to my mind involves a boat’s tendency to list to one side, but there are others).
Nothing in Peele’s filmography really prepares us for the horror elements on display here, and one of the things that’s so rewarding about Us is watching the filmmaker build so smoothly on the techniques in, and evolve past the limits of, his previous film. Get Out had that remarkable moment where Betty Gabriel seemed desperate to convey something she couldn’t bring to words; just as mysterious and infinitely more frightening is a wordless scene in Us between Nyong’o and Moss, depicting madness having to share space with the hesitant suspicion of sane memory, and watching both impulses fight each other for dominance; the victor gets its own shot as the wearer looks out a window, transitioning from one emotional extreme to another. It’s an extraordinary sequence.
The movie still hasn’t shown its cards by this point (it’s barely shown them when the end credits start to roll), and if so inclined you can let go of all the observations and thematic implications and sit back and watch the plot unfold and the stakes expand even as the narrative tightens its focus. When these story threads start to resolve themselves, they do so in ways that care more about fine-tuning and refining the wheel than reinventing it, and the final revelations and setpieces are conveyed through bold and invigorating editing (part of me wants to hedge on whether the movie has the most effective editing I’ve seen, or merely some of the most effective—but either way, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen cross-cutting as well-done as it is in the final setpiece here). Us doesn’t forge the same immediate connection to the audience as Get Out did, but it would’ve been a mistake to try and go that path. The one it chose instead is more difficult, more challenging, more intriguing, and the result is an even better film.
5 out of 5