Jordan Peele might have started off making people laugh, but man, does he know how to scare the crap out of people too.
Peele’s second directing/writing effort following his Oscar winning debut with Get Out, Us follows the Wilson family as they take a trip to their summer home to relax, recharge and apparently get stalked, chased and scared shitless too. After a day of sun bathing and hanging out with their close friends and neighbors at a local beach, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright) and Jason (Evan Alex), are visited in the dead of night by themselves…er…rather a twisted version of themselves dubbed “the Tethered”. Wearing all red while brandish sets of large shears and acting in increasingly odd and disturbing ways, these doppelgangers of unknown origin take it upon themselves to generally maim and murder anyone they can get their hands on, not stopping until they themselves are taken out, or the body they continue to stab stops moving. What follows is a terrifying ride into the heart of darkness where secrets are revealed, demons are confronted and the sense of self you once thought you had shattering into a million ugly, bloody little pieces.
You wanna know the quick and dirty reason why I liked this movie so much? Despite being a horror film with all the blood and frights you’d expect in a genre film like this, I was more or less smiling throughout. Why you ask, in a film where people are brutally stabbed and put out of their misery as easily as a hot knife slides through butter, would I even think about smiling in the first place? Easy, because when a filmmaker – especially one that writes and directs their own stuff – just seems to get it, I can’t help but get slightly emotional and ecstatic at a film nerd level.
For example, early on (no spoilers here, I promise), a young Adelaide is walking across a beach in the dead of night. Out on the water and far off in the distance, thunder rumbles and lighting crackles, illuminating the scene in a cold, unnatural light. A storm is coming our way and as droplets begin to fall, the music swells eerily as Adelaide turns to see a deserted funhouse complete with creepy décor and a general sense of foreboding that is impossible to ignore. She walks towards it. Drops her barely eaten caramelized apple on the rough, damp sand, and as the rain begins to fall in earnest, she enters, and we immediately get the feeling that this scene can’t possibly end well. All in the span of a minute or so, the mood has been set, the film has my attention, and a smile has officially crept across my face.
Now without the touch of Peele and his crew making this scene as perfect as you can possibly make it, there would be nothing to smile about. In the hands of an amateur filmmaker, this scene would be forgettable or just plain “normal”. Now extrapolate that for most of the film and instead of screaming in terror when a scene calls for it, my face was wide with a smile that read, “Damn, Jordan Peele! You know exactly how this needs to be done and by God you’re doing it right!!” And in all honesty, there aren’t enough films that give me that reaction, so for me, this near constant feeling of “getting it” permeated my viewing experience and had me liking this film a bit more than I expected, and that’s definitely saying something.
On top of a great sense of direction, anchoring the outlandish and intense events of the story with a ridiculously good cast helps matters, but the fact that Peele goes all in with his ideas and doesn’t seem to care about how wacky it all gets, made me like this film even more. Sure, there’s a handful of elements that really don’t make sense or pan out in perfect unison as much as the script tries to make it all out to be, and sure the doppelgangers sometimes act in ways that illicit a chuckle instead of a scream, but overall – and especially when you find out about what and who these things are – the feeling I had walking out of the theater was extremely positive, and I immediately wanted to see it again.
But that’s not to say that everything in the film is perfect. While I genuinely enjoyed this one more than Get Out, it can’t be denied that Us just isn’t put together as well as the former film was. Both movies clearly demonstrate that Peele has a very, very long future ahead of him in this business, but Us seems more so like a real horror film complete with the genre’s usual problems, making this offering a bit less solid, whereas Get Out was a commentary on a whole range of things that just so happened to have horror trappings that just simply worked for it. For every scene or shot or line of dialogue that had me giddy with morbid excitement, there was a story beat, piece of acting or shaky explanation that simply did not work. Also, and this is more on me than the movie itself, it took me a while to understand what tone the filmmakers were going for here. At first everything comes off like a straight horror flick, but in reality, it was more in line with the mish-mash of horror and the tongue in cheek approach a film like Cabin in the Woods went with. Again, nothing wrong with that, but my mind had me going down a different route with my experience until it was obvious that there was more to it than just blood and mayhem, especially when a well placed joke or chuckle was used properly to great effect. Couple that with a few twists and reveals that should have knocked the breath out of me instead of given me the feeling that they could have been handled even more effectively, and you have a film that is perfectly good in every way, just not perfectly perfect in many other ways.
A film that’s scary, fun, terrifying and thought provoking all at the same time, Us is a great sophomore effort by Peele, and easily continues to solidify him as a creative force to be reckoned with. This film has its flaws in more than one area, but the overall feeling I got was that these nitpicks didn’t matter enough to stop me from liking most of what I saw up onscreen. I look forward to hopefully seeing it again, and if not, continue to think on it long after I write this review. At this point, just let Jordan Peele make whatever he wants from here on out, there’s no point in denying it any longer.