Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Movie Review: Us

Us **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jordan Peele.
Written by: Jordan Peele.
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o (Adelaide Wilson/Red), Winston Duke (Gabe Wilson/Abraham), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Zora Wilson/Umbrae), Evan Alex (Jason Wilson/Pluto), Elisabeth Moss (Kitty Tyler/Dahlia), Tim Heidecker (Josh Tyler/Tex), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Russel Thomas/Weyland), Anna Diop (Rayne Thomas/Eartha), Cali Sheldon (Becca Tyler/Io), Noelle Sheldon (Lindsay Tyler/Nix), Madison Curry (Young Adelaide Wilson/Young Red).
The more I think about Jordan Peele’s Us – the more I love it, and I pretty much loved every second of it as I was watching it. Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is a bigger, more ambitious film – one whose meanings are harder to parse, harder to pin down – but may in fact be more profound because it. You can go down numerous internet rabbit holes already that give any number of theories on what it all means – some of them make sense, some of them are out and out insane (I try not to say wrong, because interpretations of movies are rarely wrong, even if they are not necessarily what the director intended – but some of them are wrong). Perhaps that was Peele’s ultimate goal – because while I think the big metaphor in the film is obvious, there’s a lot going on under the surface of Us. The film may well become Peele’s version of The Shining (which is my favorite horror film, and my favorite Kubrick film) – a never ending maze you cannot get out of, no matter how you try.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. Like all great films that are filled with subtext, Peele knows that in order for Us to work, it has to work on the basic surface level as well – to be a scary horror movie, with good characters, etc. are you aren’t going to want to try and pierce the larger message he is trying to convey. And Us works on that surface level as well as any horror movie this decade. He starts out simply – establishing the Wilson family – mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who we see had a traumatizing experience as a child that continues to haunt her in a startling opening sequence, affable husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright)- who like all teenager simultaneously loves her family, and is annoyed by them, and younger son Jason (Evan Alex) – going through an awkward, quiet stage. They are heading to their summer house – and end up getting roped into spending the day with their more affluent (white) friends (played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss – who delivers another excellent performance, making me wonder if there’s anything she cannot play). When they return to their home that night and are getting ready for bed, they see a family standing in the driveway – a family who won’t go away, and won’t respond – and eventually, they realize, look exactly like them – but other than Red (Nyong’o) – don’t speak. What do they want? Why are they here? Why are they dressed in red? And what are those giant scissors for?
I won’t answer any of those questions here – Us, even more than most films, is probably a film you should see completely cold if possible. And yet, I will also say that even if you guess the various twists and turns the movie is going to take over the course of its runtime, the film still works wonderfully. For a while, it does play like a home invasion horror film – which is one of my favorite horror subgenres, as it taps into one of my own deepest fears – and the added twist here of having the invaders be copies of them, and knowing some of their motive fairly early on, but not all of it, works better than you would expect. It creates even more uncertainty and fear – not less. It also doesn’t rely on artificially boosting the scare factor – the family makes the right decisions throughout – but can never fully escape, and if things look like plot holes (the cops who are called, but do not show up, and later the 911 lines being busy) – they make sense as more is revealed.
Peele, who is clearly a horror movie nerd, knows how to scare you here – knows how to build tension expertly, and then pay it off with bloody violence if need be. While Get Out was a lot of things – all of them great – I’m not sure too much of it was truly scary in a horror movie sense (it’s scary – in a much different way). The entire middle section of the film – from the first invasion of the Wilson house, to the sequence at their friend’s house is expertly crafted horror – and truly terrifying on its own.
It is the final act that gets people talking though – about what it all means – especially the last twist. It is possible to see that twist coming, and yet it still works. It undercuts what otherwise would a triumphant ending because it becomes clear the true scope of the horror, and makes you question not who the real bad guys are – but if anyone is the real bad guy here. As a metaphor, it works on both a national level – for America’s dark past, and how it is painted over and ignored, but is still very much there, how a system that produces winners, also produces losers, who are capable of as much as the winners, but are never given the chance. But it also works on a personal level – about the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to simply go on living – and how the next generation always has to deal with those same lies the previous one told, and what that means for them.
Yes, you can probably pick apart the sheer logistics that the final twists would mean have to be in place. But why would you want to do that? This is a horror film, and operates on horror film logic – and on that level, everything makes complete sense. The film is also a showcase for the great Lupita Nyong’o – who gives a stunning dual performance here, and is the best work of her career – I suspect that come awards time, she will get close but not cross the finish line just like Toni Collette in Hereditary last year – but the performance is that level. And if confirms that Peele is truly a great filmmaker. Get Out was a great film, and you wondered if he could do it again. With Us, he raises his game to the next level – and delivered one of the best horror films of the decade.

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