Us Review: A marvellous movie let down by muddled messaging
This worthwhile sophomore effort from Jordan Peele is elevated by the performances, especially that of Lupita Nyong'o in the lead, and the music of Michael Abels
Walking out of the theatre after watching Jordan Peele's Us, I knew that I loved it but couldn't immediately put into words what about it appealed to me. Once I started ruminating on it, I was better able to articulate what I liked, but the cracks in its foundation became more obvious at the same time. This in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the film in the moment. And if you, like me, don't dig too much as you're watching and are able to overlook lapses in logic, this movie will certainly be a rewarding experience.
Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Director: Jordan Peele
Having said that, this is the second feature film of the man who made Get Out, so it's hard to avoid trying to read into it. To look for deeper meaning. Especially since this is also a more ambitious film than Peele's debut, and he's filled it with both easter eggs and exposition. If he'd avoided the latter, the film would in all likelihood have been the better for it.
As for the easter eggs and references, they are aplenty. And a lot of it is drawn from pop culture and cinema itself: the very first shot is of an old school CRT TV and videotapes next to it with titles like Goonies and Nightmare on Elm Street; then there's the throwback to the opening of The Shining in the scene that introduces us to the family at the centre of the film; Michael Jackson's Thriller plays a role too (and gets an interesting call back at the end)... the list goes on.
Us joins the long list of spooky films that are based on the idea of doppelgängers. Lupita Nyong'o plays Adelaide Wilson who, as a child, has an encounter with a look-alike. In the present day, she and her family -- husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) -- return to the same spot on a summer vacation and find themselves accosted later that night, in their home, by a family of doppelgängers. This film at this point turns into a home invasion thriller/horror, and a very effective one at that. The scene where Adelaide's counterpart, Red, explains what's going on is an especial stand out. In it, and throughout the film, Nyong'o is excellent. She's brilliant in both the roles and successfully gets us invested in these two distinct characters.
Speaking of dual roles, nearly everyone gets a shot at one, and the performances are universally good. Duke is pitch-perfect as the dorky dad, and his interactions with his daughter are a delight. Wright Joseph, who plays the latter, is, in her role as Umbrae, the spookiest of the doppelgängers. Elizabeth Moss appears in a supporting role and makes quite an impression. I particularly enjoyed (as strange as that it is to say) the fate that befalls her white family (who are friends of the Wilsons). The use of an Alexa-like voice-activated home assistant in that sequence is inspired, and that whole segment had me switching between laughing out loud and being horrified several times over. This applies to the film as a whole too, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Peele.
The music by Michael Abels and the sound design deserve a special shout-out as well. The way Luniz's I Got 5 on It is used, once in the beginning to establish the Wilsons' family dynamics, and then again in remixed form for that incredible cross-cut sequence in the final showdown between Adelaide and Red, is simply genius.
If Get Out had Peele taking on race through a horror film, here he does the same with class relations. Or more broadly, Us is deals with how the comfort, and even happiness, of those who are privileged is bought at the cost of those not so fortunate. But when you try to dissect this theme, you realise that the messaging is muddled. This film will still get people talking about these issues, and that is important too. It is just unfortunate that his very ambition has made Peele stumble. Get Out will remain the better film, but Us is, despite all its lapses in logic and confused themes, still a worthy sophomore effort.