Us (United States, 2019)

March 21, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Us Poster

Get Out was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade and it thrust first-time director Jordan Peele firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has answered the “what’s next?” question with Us, an uneven film that calls to mind a common pitfall in the movie industry often referred to as the Sophomore Slump. Despite an intriguing premise and a single great sequence, Us is a muddled affair that goes off the rails the more Peele tries to expand, explore, and explain his basic concept. It’s often said that less is more in horror and, had Peele cut out a lion’s share of the exposition in Us, it would have made for a more viscerally satisfying experience.

Following a creepy prologue set in a Santa Cruz amusement park circa 1986, Us jumps forward in time to “today.” A family of four – father Gabe (Winston Duke), mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex) – are about to embark on the annual ritual of a summer vacation at the lake. Most of Us’ first half-hour is devoted to establishing how normal the Wilsons are. When they arrive at the lake house, Zora complains that she can’t get on-line. Gabe buys a cheap boat. Us gets the family-bonding details right; however, this being a horror film, as night follows day, so unpleasantness trails normalcy.

It begins during a power outage with a creepy quartet standing mutely at the end of the driveway, their intentions as hidden by darkness as their countenances. Adelaide is immediately worried but Gabe is more laid-back in his approach. However, when the strangers don’t respond to his friendly challenges, he tells his wife to call the police and returns outside brandishing a bat. That’s when the home invasion begins – a terrifically crafted 15-minute sequence in which intercutting shows the fate of each member of the Wilson family as the situation unfolds. There’s some exposition included here as well – an explanation of why the invaders resemble the victims. They are the “shadows” and they have come with the intention of untethering themselves from their hosts. That can be accomplished only by using scissors. Peele makes sure we don’t miss the haves-and-have-nots message here by hammering it home with little attempt at subtlety. “What are you?” asks the affluent black woman of her downtrodden shadow. “We’re Americans,” she responds.

The creepiness factor alone keeps the first half of Us involving. Then things start going bonkers…and not in a good way. Although never as whacked out as mother!, Us trends in that direction with some plot twists/developments that don’t make sense. Logic be damned, however – this movie has metaphors. It’s saying something. To make matters worse, Peele doesn’t stick to the rules he establishes. After making it clear that the “shadows” are human, he violates that tenet almost immediately. Us embraces horror movie clichés (like the dead not staying dead and supposedly intelligent people doing stupid things) with glee – at times, this seems to be done tongue-in-cheek but not always. There’s a fair amount of wit and humor (most of which is intentional) in the proceedings but, outside of the home invasion sequence, there’s not enough tension or suspense. Whereas Get Out made viewers feel uncomfortable, the only discomfort emerging from Us is the realization of how little sense everything makes. Putting aside one feeble jump-scare, Peele doesn’t seem interested or invested in frightening viewers. He’s too busy preaching.

As was the case with Get Out, Peele has stayed away from Big Name Actors in casting Us. Instead, he has reached into the MCU and plucked out Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, both of whom appeared in Black Panther. They’re very good here with Nyong’o focused on her character’s emotional turmoil and Duke providing a portion of the film’s comedic relief (along with a few one-liners that come out of the Schwarzenegger school of instant quotables). Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, who represent the next generation, get their opportunities to wreak havoc.

If there’s one thing that saves Us, it’s that, even as the movie descends into a narrative morass from which it never escapes, there are many individual scenes that, taken in isolation, pack a punch. The problem is that, once assembled into the larger whole, it doesn’t all work. One would have to be forgiving in the extreme to give Peele a pass by using the justification that all horror films are preposterous. Yes, many are, but not this nonsensical. Us is audacious, to be sure, but audacity isn’t always a good thing.

Us (United States, 2019)

Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Home Release Date: 2019-06-18
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis
Music: Michael Abels
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2019-03-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1