2019 | Rated R | starring Lupita Nyong’o, Windston Duke, Elizabeth Moss | written & directed by Jordan Peele | 1 hr 56 mins |
After Jordan Peele knocked Hollywood sideways with his original, high-concept horror thriller Get Out he could have rested on his laurels for quite a while. I loved Get Out. We all loved Get Out. It’s also a movie that works so well because it’s big ideas are clever and it absolutely nails all of the big moments it needs to. Drop Get Out into the Deep Movie Analysis chamber and it’s first-time-filmmaker rough edges become more apparent. The script does a bit of contorting to get where it wants to go, it awkwardly juggles it’s comic moments, sectioning them off and dropping in and out of the A-story to get there, and it’s generally a race satire Stepford Wives. That’s all to say that Peele’s immediate follow-up, Us, is a far smoother, richer, experience. It’s the incredible embodiment of how confident Peele has become as a filmmaker in just under two years.
Us is best seen knowing nothing about. It is ostensibly a Twilight Zone spin on a home invasion film, but it’s built with a rock solid 3-act structure and gets highly ambitious as it goes, not afraid to let it’s weird flag fly and trust the audience to just go with it. It’s fun to imagine how Peele came to this final product: did he start with a surreal home invasion concept or did he have the ending and back into it? Either way both ends work. In a time when high concept puzzle-box set-ups are enough to get people into the seats, I deeply appreciate that Peele has a story and an explanation to back up his wild setup. That puzzle-box set-up: In 1986 young Adelaide wandered away from her parents at a Santa Cruz amusement park and disappeared for 15 minutes. As an adult, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, phenomenal), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two kids return to Santa Cruz on vacation and are suddenly surrounded in the middle of the night by intruders armed with gold scissors who look like just like them and stand arm-in-arm like a stick figure family on the back of a car window. Who are they? What are they? Where did they come from and what do they want? .
The acting by and large is stellar, again with Nyong’o hoisting the movie on her shoulders as both Adelaide and her evil doppelganger and Elizabeth Moss in a small but effective role. Some of the humor cuts the eeriness perfectly, this time Peele’s one liners integrated smoothly into character moments and genre subversion such as the family bickering about their kill count or Peele’s particularly ingenious answer to the “just call the police” horror trope. Some of it hits with a dud and I wish Peele would curb his one-liners down about 25%, particularly for Duke who is working with the goofy, but oblivious dad trope who fusses with his boat and is the last to believe something is amiss here.
However, the joy in Us is less about it’s mechanics and more about it’s artistry. One where visuals, music, story and performances blend to a cinematic symphony. I could describe the plot of the film from start to finish and that still wouldn’t quite give away the pleasure of watching it. Peele’s frames up every shot with purpose. The colors are lush, the sounds are eerie and the music is brilliantly orchestrated – both in the scenes and on the soundtrack and moving back and forth between the two. Peele loves his visual motifs here and scatters them all over the film. We get the stick figures and the golden scissors. We also get red outfits, a hall of mirrors, rabbits and bible verses. These may send people scrambling to uncover the clues and coming to frustrating dead ends. I don’t think the film is burying deeper meanings and riddles in it’s motifs. There is a social satire at core here, but it’s not as obvious and straightforward as the title or Red’s “we are American’s” line would suggest. I don’t think they’re all leading a manifesto Peele is declaring with the film. Us is pure cinema storytelling written in more ambiguous nightmare logic that works from front to back, full of set ups and payoffs and easter eggs.
Which brings us to the ending and a spoiler free comment that I, simply, loved it. Peele loads up every barrel and fires it off into a crescendo of music, action and monologue. Campy, artful and thrilling. It’s been criticized as two exposition heavy, which is like saying the murderer revealing their motive in an Agatha Christie novel or the villain monologing in a James Bond film is an exposition dump. It’s just enough to sketch out the film’s world but not so much that it suffocates the imagination. He rides the line here. By focusing on the more manageable arc of Nyong’o’s character while the film gets bigger he keeps things focused and satisfying.
Us is a visual feast with Peele using one hand to craft as a genre crowd-pleaser and another to build a piece of sensory art. There are sections of the film with remarkably little dialog at all. Peele effortlessly constructs what M. Knight Shyamalan seems to just labor and sweat over. The film is wonderfully tactile in a time when most movies are cartoonish and it’s an original work at a time when most movies are franchises. Even more than Get Out, Us doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box. It’s not so much a thriller, a horror film, a home invasion film, a satire or a science fiction film to either attract or repel those genre’s fans. And that’s so damn great. It blends those elements into it’s own concoction, comparable only to another Jordon Peele movie. Us is the masterfully crafted work of a born filmmaker fluent in the art of cinema who seems to love this genre. It’s the first great movie of 2019.