Us (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Jordan Peele
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, Universal Pictures
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Tagline: Watch Yourself.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, home invasion, family drama, conspiracy, suspense
Scare score: C-
Rating: A-

Plot overview: As a young girl (Madison Curry), Adelaide (Nyong’o) encounters a frightening double of herself in a boardwalk house of mirrors. Years later and now with two young children of her own (Wright Joseph, Alex), Adelaide still can’t shake the fear of her lingering shadow. She is forced to take a good look at herself after a family clad in red jumpsuits and armed with scissors shows up in the middle of the night.


I stand by my feelings that Get Out changed the horror game and breathed new life into our favorite genre, which I feel has grown more popular in recent years for a few reasons. First, I think we are experiencing a generation of writers and directors/producers who grew up during a beautiful age of horror movies (the ’80s) and are now bringing their own dreams to life, filled with nods to the past. Secondly, I think Hollywood is more comfortable with the idea of well-made and even niche horror movies with a message, not just the sensual slashers that plagued (and pleasured) us in the 2000s, and not to mention there are more small studios who can work to take on these projects. Finally—and I have to look into statistics or data on this—but I feel that more audiences want and enjoy horror today, if only because for many people, the real world at present is even more horrible than what they’re seeing onscreen.


That being said, don’t go into Us expecting it to be the next Get Out. They are different films made for different purposes, and in many aspects I felt they have some different messages to share. Now back to the film at hand.
Us is a freaky, fun, and dynamic movie that plays first and foremost with the themes of division, duplicity, and the doppelgänger. As teased by the movie poster, the viewer should know to go into the film expecting us to “watch ourselves,” or know that “we are our own worst enemy” while questioning what lies beneath. As many famous horror movies allow the killer to take on a new identity while masked, so Us forces us to think about what masks we wear on a daily basis to get ahead, to thrive, or merely to survive. The first foil we encounter is between the Wilsons—Adelaide’s family—and their friends the Tylers. Headed by “it’s vodka o’clock” wife Kitty (Moss) and one-upping husband Josh (Tim Heidecker), the Tylers and their bratty twin daughters are everything their respective Wilson counterparts are not: proud, overly talkative, selfish, and entitled. These families ultimately represent a larger message in the film that Peele tries to make with a Biblical subtext: It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, or what you have, because when the oppressed masses rise up, we’ll all be subjected to the same fate. 


This looming thought is introduced several times via the local doomsday man beckoning a sign saying “Jeremiah 11:11.” If you don’t have your pocket Bible handy during the movie, you’ll have to wait until the end to know that this passage reads “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” But what evil could this possibly mean? We’ll explore after the Spoilers jump.


For those of you who don’t want anything spoiled, I will say that I enjoyed this film. The scares were underwhelming but Peele in his own right has become wonderfully adept at suspense flavored either with humor or very human fear. As in Get Out, the audience and characters alike discover absurdity in the most terrifying moments, and while this trick helps treat the viewer as more intelligent than the plethora of on-the-nose horror films of the past (and present), it makes things no less horrifying for everyone involved. Again, this is likely part of Peele’s commentary on our world today, where things feel topsy turvy and equally terrible.


I thought Lupita Nyong’o and Elisabeth Moss were brilliant in this film—Moss as her doppelgänger specifically has a memorable silent scream we see via a reflection. Winston Duke as Adelaide’s husband Gabe adds a charming levity to the movie and both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as their children do incredible jobs. Nyong’o especially explores her duality of light and dark, smooth and jagged, evil and not in a performance that deserves major award recognition. The casting for this film was excellent, especially because of the task that was asked of each actor. The cinematography was also gorgeous, with the many and varied scenes of public and private spaces, light and dark, above and below inviting us in to a visual feast. I’m still dreaming about the house of mirrors and that escalator. No surprise that this was the handiwork of Mike Gioulakis, who brought us It Follows, one of my favorite horror movies of all time that I still haven’t blogged about because I took a casual 3.5-year hiatus.
References to some of our other horror favorites abounded, including nods to The Twilight ZoneThe Shining, and I think especially to The Strangers, to name a few. I even loved how this was pitched as “a new nightmare” à la Wes Craven but now from Jordan Peele. From the opening overhead view (God’s eye?) akin to Kubrick’s famous opening credits, to the concept of twins to the tight interior angles, The Shining was the film most referenced as helping inspire Peele for his second major horror picture, so I was surprised to see just how much time was spent feeling like your standard home invasion.


*SPOILER ALERT*
I didn’t know what to expect going into the theater. Trailers certainly teased the concept of the dark doppelgänger, but this film packed much more into its 116-minute run time. In fact, I think the movie’s biggest fault is that it packed too much into its ambitious plot.

I am obsessed with the ’80s and also with amusement parks in movies, so I found many scenes from this movie practically magical, especially when Adelaide discovers the underground world beneath the boardwalk. The ’80s kitsch was also so good, especially with the Hands Across America plot, because Peele uses it to provide commentary on the parallels between the Regan ’80s and our current world: There is a sense of hollowness or superficiality that makes even kind or humanitarian gestures seem fake. Here again we see our theme of duplicity: public and private faces, doublespeak and hidden messages, behavior vs. intent. Who are we really? How do you categorize between “good” and “evil” when some people are just trying to survive? And will we pay for it all?


I was not expecting the eerie (and slightly irrelevant?) opening title message about vast unused tunnels under the United States, which immediately threw me for a curveball upon seeing the movie. As it turns out, this would become one of many aspects the movie included to feel spookier, but that I feel didn’t fully pan out. At the end of the day, I really enjoyed this movie, but the myth it wanted us to buy into was too big and too vague for me to feel totally comfortable with it. Sure, most horror movies are based on ridiculous plots, and even Get Out was *impossible*, but there was something about the idea that some government (?) agency cloned us all and forced our Tethered doubles to mimic our every moves in their subterranean classrooms and hallways all while feasting on raw rabbit. I enjoyed the concept of the “puppet masters” and the “puppets,” mostly for how this complements the theme of doubles, and even though I found myself adoring the scene where Red explains this all to Adelaide, it was just too much. Regarding the Tethered doppelgängers, I loved their sort of nonspeak (except for Heidecker, who I thought went overboard with the sounds/ was too comically animated more so than the others), and I think that raspy, breathing-in-to-talk choice was really effective.


As far as the twist ending goes, I wish I could say I saw it coming but I didn’t until closer to the end. There were times during the film—especially as we see Adelaide embrace the violence and become more animalistic, even through her son’s eyes—when I wondered if she had somehow been swapped without us knowing, but of course it was all much more sinister than that. I would love to rewatch the film knowing what I know now in order to pick up on all of those delicious clues. I think it would have cued me in sooner to the concept of the secrets we keep, the truths we ignore, and the masks we wear to live the lives we think we are supposed to live or that we think we deserve to live, even at the expense—whether we know about it or not—of many other people. Are we innocent of the suffering of these Others, who in many ways are just like Us? Or are we guilty, even if we are unaware of their existence in a Sunken Place of sorts, of all that we did not do to right these wrongs? And furthermore, what price to we pay to rise out of those dark places and join the happy majority above ground? I viewed this transition as the “invitation to whiteness” so prominent in the United States by which many peoples and cultures that were once considered minorities were invited to join the white group in power (think women, the Irish, Italians). Some people, such as dark-skinned black Americans, may never be formally invited to join this group, but over time, the decreasing white group realizes its power is slipping and thus invites another marginalized group to rise either to real or imagined power. And of course, many formerly-non-power individuals jump at this opportunity to live out their own American Dream— but at what price? This is the fear ‘Adelaide’ lives in constantly, knowing that she has abandoned her people beneath the ground to advance only herself, and it provides major commentary about what it’s like to alternate between power and non-power groups in the United States. Ultimately it’s the real Adelaide-turned-Red who teaches the other Tethereds what it means to have true agency and to have to truly fight, unite, and join hands to make a statement that the world will finally listen to. It’s a revolution, and it’s no coincidence that Adelaide knew what she was missing from the world above in order to stay determined, inspire the other Tethereds (via “the dance”), and ultimately fight back and educate/moralize the ‘Adelaide’ we know on the concepts of reparations, revenge, and justice.


All in all, I think the most impressive thing about this movie was the challenge handed to the actors who all had to play two versions of themselves. This added such a richness to the film and at many points I found myself questioning if they truly had found other actors to play these roles. Nyong’o especially delivered in her two roles, and that final fight/dance scene was absolutely stunning. Her physicality throughout the film as both characters was excellent.


Final critique: I enjoyed this film, but I find myself describing it to others as “freaky” and not scary. I didn’t feel disappointed at the end, but I do think it was ambitious to the point of feeling a little unfinished or hazy around the edges. Still, the plot was fresh and fun, and the commentary on the oppressed masses rising up is Peele’s clearest commentary reminding us that, especially in today’s world, we are our own worst enemy.