I’m not sure how this review is gonna go down because a large part of me is still trying to decipher this film. After Get Out, I was very much looking forward to more of what Peele had to bring to the horror circuit and Us looked like another winner. My initial thoughts though were good, but flawed, and yet after doing some reading I’m slowly coming around to the film. I still think that Jordan Peele is one of the most interesting voices to come out of modern horror and he’s got plenty more to say, but Us might cause a bit of rift when people talk about him.
The film follows the Wilson family, father Gabe (Winston Duke), mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) as they take a summer trip to their vacation home in Santa Cruz. Gabe wants to enjoy their time on the beach, but Adelaide is cautious after a traumatic event in her childhood where she saw a girl that looked exactly like her in the Hall of Mirrors. Since then she’s had a fear that her double would find her and bring with her something horrible.
As it happens, that’s exactly what happens, the Wilson family are attacked by their doppelgangers, a pack of red jumpsuit wearing maniacs calling themselves “The Tethered,” who hold the family hostage and start playing twisted games with them. As the night goes on however, the family starts to realize that there’s more to “The Tethered” then they realized, and something big is about to happen.
For the record, I am holding a lot back, there’s elements to this film that shouldn’t be spoiled and I’m going to do my best not to, which is going to be difficult because while the story has a lot going for it in terms of surprises, which was also the film’s biggest issues. To start positive, Peele’s second run at social-horror is just as effective as the film. Get Out’s use of racial issues was a lot more on-the-nose while here things are dealt more in hidden meanings and subtext, but the general gist is that Peele is tackling the class system. More specifically how people are perceived outside their own class system and how each interact with each other with “The Tethered” being an analogy for homelessness. And the duality between Adelaide and her double Red carrying a lot of weight with it once you start looking into the two of them.
Conversely though, the story also suffers from a few plot-holes and unanswered questions, the biggest one being the twist ending which is VERY obvious with a ton of easy evidence to support it. The film does a bait-and-switch and make it seem like a ton of red herrings, only to then double-back on itself and commit to the obvious twist, only now it doesn’t make any sense. I’ve seen some people saying that the reason the twist was so easy to spot was to hide the real twist regarding the social classism of the parties involved and I can buy into that. But I think that Peele did himself a disservice by hiding the twist until the very end. If he had included the twist during the bait-and-switch, it would’ve still been extremely obvious, but at least it wouldn’t have key-dialogue disproving itself before the twist even happens.
Acting thankfully is solid across the board, I won’t go into too much detail on the supporting cast, but Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss as family friends, Josh and Kitty Tyler, play very well into the film central themes with Moss particularly giving a strong performance.
The Wilson children, Zora and Jason both give very good performance for child actors, both as themselves and as their Tethered counterparts. Zora starts off initially as a typical pre-teen girl, a little too sullen for her own good, constantly dealing with a bratty little brother. But after dealing with The Tethered – her own double Umbrae being this wide-eyed, creepy grinned psychopath which juxtaposes nicely again the sheer terror of Zora – she grabs hold of a weapon and fights back, at one point arguing that she has the best kill-count of the family. By contrast, Jason is a little bit weird, a little bit quiet, enjoys his magic tricks, but a bit of an introvert. His counterpart Pluto, is near feral and yet there’s something between the two, something I’m still not sure what its all about, but it’s certainly interesting to see.
Winston Duke, coming off his star-making turn in Black Panther, plays Gabe and his counterpart Abraham. Unlike the child, Abraham is just a big lumbering brick shithouse, still frightening but a lot more simple, and played very well by Duke. His main focus on Gabe being a total ‘dad’ character is great, he’s awkwardly funny when he needs to be, and bad-ass when he has to be, it’s a strong showing of Duke’s talents and he plays Gabe with the right amount of skepticism and disbelief to keep him feeling genuine.
The star of the show is absolutely Lupito Nyong’o as both Adelaide and Red. As Adelaide, she’s a woman pushed the edge who starts losing herself the more she has to fight against the bastards attacking her family with small flashes of empathy becoming less and less obvious the longer the film goes on. As Red she’s a twisted, horse-voiced sociopath who moves with what I can only describe as military precision. There’s a stiffness to her movements, but it’s all perfectly in tune with itself. Red likewise has small degrees of empathy for her victims and the two characters together create an interesting duality that plays into the film’s central themes. Namely that Red is the worst elements of Adelaide made real (the ‘Us’ part of the title is the two of them together so to speak). The way Nyong’o is able to play off herself shows all sides of two very different characters, and is a testament to her ability that shows her Oscar win was not a fluke.
As much as I have slight issues with Peele’s return to writing, his return to the directing chair is also a mixed bag, but much more on the positive. My biggest problem is his use of humor, it was prevalent in Get Out, but that was an insane situation, and the film allowed light of the situation before committing to the terror of reality. In US, the humor felt like it was actively fighting against the horror. It was good in small moments like watching a family get massacred to the tune of “Good Vibrations” or Gabe’s bad dad jokes, but there were too many moments of levity that felt distracting, considering “The Tethered” were presented as twisted killing machines.
Thankfully though, even with the undercutting, Peele still has a strong grasp on horror, the opening prologue in the Hall of Mirrors uses darkness and disorientation to set a strong mood. The first attack of “The Tethered” against The Wilson family is easily the best part of the film with the unflinching intensity of “The Tethered” being used to get into the house through sheer force. And then the psychological mind-games to mess with the family added to a series of very disturbing and frightening scenes. Peele still knows how to get under your skin and while Get Out had a more primal fear about ‘loss of self’, there’s a true-blue, invasion horror style to this film that captures that old-school type of fear. Had he gone all the way, this could’ve been quite terrifying, but too much levity kept the terror from digging in too deep. Also, I spent all film waiting for those damn scissors to be used for something grisly, but they never went there.
Whenever critics pick the singular horror movie to be the absolute standout of the year, I usually find myself agreeing with them, Us is one of those years where I don’t. Maybe that’s me because I think what Peele has done in regards to creating an analogy for classism and the invisibility of homelessness is quite clever and there’s moments of brilliance within the film. Particularly, the acting with Lupita Nyong’o delivering two brilliant performances. But it’s far from the masterpiece people are claiming it as, it has some iffy writing regarding its central twist, which is an important spoke in the wheel to not put enough effort into, and the impressive horror is undercut with unimpressive humor. Writing everything down, I have warmed up slightly to this film, but while I can see all the ingredients for greatness, the end result isn’t quite there.
I am giving US a 3 ½ out of 5 Hairpieces!