Lupita Nyong'o in Us.
After the universal success of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort, Us, garnered a level of anticipation rarely seen for original studio films. The instant Twitter hype and the film’s swift placement on every critic’s “Most Anticipated Movies of 2019” list did not come without its share of expectations. Almost every piece profiling Peele over the course the movie’s rollout includes multiple comparisons of the newly knighted auteur to Alfred Hitchcock, along with discussions on how the director will next cleverly comment on race relations in America. While finding thematic and stylistic through-lines in a director’s filmography makes for a fascinating exercise, the recent run of press surrounding Us fails to appreciate the film for what it is: a very different feature from Get Out.
Like Peele’s first directed film combined elements of horror and high-concept suspense, Us also blends genres, albeit very different ones. Us is a much more traditional horror film, most notably drawing from home-invasion and slasher films. After the prologue, the film introduces the Wilson family on their way to a beach vacation. The beginning smartly takes its time, establishing the various family members’ personalities with expert detail. Slowly, increasingly tense scenes from the viral trailer occur in the film, the audience bracing themselves for the inevitable arrival of the mysterious clone family to appear in the Wilsons' driveway. Watching the film in a crowded theater on opening weekend, the collective tension in the room was palpable as soon as the cast’s red-draped counterparts appeared on screen.
Without giving too much away, the film triumphs during this middle section, packed with terrifying thrills. The Wilson family’s battles with their complementary versions, paired with their desperation to understand these uninvited guests’ desires, makes for edge-of-your-seat entertainment. These sequences demonstrate Us’s greatest strength and biggest difference from Get Out—it is an unabashedly fun horror film. In interviews, Peele has spoken at length about his love of the genre, and it shows in his amazing execution. The scenes are filled with suspense and harsh violence, acting in service of character development. By having the Wilson family battle versions of themselves, their full range of character traits emerge through the interactions, from bravery to a reliance on violence. Little details from dialogue earlier in the film surface in their physical actions and tendencies—in both the actual Wilsons and their tethered companions. These small touches exemplify Peele’s amazing directorial skills—barely a frame or line of dialogue is wasted, and many seemingly trivial details tie back in to later scenes.
Unfortunately, the film’s ending prevents Us from reaching the heights of Peele’s debut. The climax, before launching into a battle between Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Red (Lupita Nyong’o), comes to a grinding halt for a long, exposition-filled monologue attempting to explain the logic of “The Tethered” and Red’s grand plan. Not only are some of the details of how “The Tethered” work not entirely clear, but the delivery of these facts also comes off as lazy. Leaving details of a mysterious underground society vague can create a space for interesting fan theories and interpretations, but doing so via what is essentially a James Bond villain speech that goes through all of Red’s revenge plans to rule the world completely takes away from the film’s momentum. With incoherency in the world’s logic despite mountains of exposition, the last twenty minutes fall flat despite the film’s twist ending.
Peele’s comments on his interpretation of the film—that “The Tethered” simply represent ourselves—also detracts from the ending. While other interpretations of the film can still be valid, the mystique of a director refusing to comment on a film’s theme remains alluring. Film has long been an auteur-driven medium, with fans often taking a director’s word as gospel when it comes to his/her film. Imagine how boring The Shining would be if Kubrick had explicitly said the film was about Native American spirits exacting their revenge—it robs the film of a sense of powerful ambiguity. A recent film that successfully executed an obscure ending without trying to pander to the audiences was last year’s Annihilation. Instead of using a monologue, writer-director Alex Garland utilized surreal visual effects to tell his story. Not holding the audience’s hand, the film sparked many articles online, with new interpretations of the ending appearing almost every day. Us has received similar treatment, but between the film’s broken logic and Peele’s comments, many allegories for what “The Tethered” represent fail to fully work. Given the film’s final twist, any attempts to make “The Tethered” an allegory for class or race would seem to imply the proletariat needs a member of the elite to lead their revolution, or that a white savior figure is necessary to save minorities, which obviously quickly becomes problematic.
Although he trades in clever social commentary for thrills in Us, Jordan Peele again demonstrates his deft directing skills and his knack for capturing instantly iconic frames. A decidedly different film from Get Out, Us entertains for the vast majority of its runtime. Peele makes fantastic use of his increased budget, employing much more elaborate sets and conducting larger set-pieces. He clearly knows how to draw performances out of his actors, as Lupita Nyong’o dazzles in the lead role, supported by great turns from Winston Duke and the always amazing Elisabeth Moss. Leaving audiences with a twist in the last few frames, the film invites repeat viewings, which, due to Peele’s craft, is worth the additional price of admission.
Rush is a Marketing Sophomore and Managing Editor.
Photo Credit: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures.