Few things could prepare you for the feverish uncertainty of Jordan Peele’s newest addition to the horror canon, Us. Anyone going into it expecting a relatively practical, grounded, metaphorical take on social issues through the lens of genre like Peele’s previous film Get Out will be thrown. Possibly with great force and without mercy. Is it better than Get Out? Is it more important in what it has to say? Both of these questions are nearly impossible to answer definitively. In fact, the film itself is difficult to discuss without major plot spoilers, but we’ll do our best. But you HAVE been warned…
The plot begins in a fairly straight-forward manner, at least for a modern horror film. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is on a summer vacation with her family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teenager daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright), and young son Jason (Evan Alex). A trip to the beach in Santa Cruz has Adelaide nervous and upset, since as a young girl she had a traumatic experience in a hall of mirrors attraction on the boardwalk where she encountered a girl that looked exactly like her. When the family returns home from the beach, they are almost immediately set upon by intruders in red jumpsuits who look like them but are all…just a bit off. And happen to be psychotic and armed with razor-sharp golden scissors. As the family runs from their attackers, they discover that the situation is much more complicated than a mere home invasion.
Peele’s Get Out was a metaphor for racism, especially the kind of “positive” discrimination espoused by white neoliberals. It was a laser-guided, focused, biting satire that borrowed from The Stepford Wives and The Shining in equal measures. It mixed terror, humor, camp, and Serious Messages into a package that was meant to be so easily digestible that it became impossible to ignore. Us is nearly a complete reversal of that. The influences are harder to pick out, the messages harder to decipher with certainty, and it’s a film that almost dares you to try and decode it. But decoding it is almost necessary to appreciate it, because it doesn’t always work on the immediate level that many of us expect from a mainstream horror film.
Us is certainly far more cerebral than it is visceral. While it’s rated R for violence and terror, little of that violence is directly on screen. There’s plenty of blood, but there’s also plenty of discretion kill shots that happen right off camera. The film finds its vibe through an overall air of paranoia and uncertainty, a fear of the unknown and what’s to come, not through gory set pieces. In some ways, this prevents it from working on a gut level as a horror film. In some ways, this helps it work as an insidiously creepy meditation on…whatever social issues Jordan Peele is trying to talk about. Something about the oppression of economic class structure, maybe? A personal reflection on the darker side of humanity?
And therein lies the film’s main issue. It often seems like it’s conflicted with itself. Its narrative is sometimes too nebulous and its trajectory sometimes too scattershot to completely satisfy as a concrete thriller. Its charms, substantial as they are, are all after-the-fact and buried deep in its story, like hidden treasures. While it’s admirable that Peele has put so much meticulous work into crafting his film and his symbols, it simply isn’t as presently scary as the trailers make it out to be. Terrifying? Yes, often. Frightening? Not always. It’s a distinction between existential fear and instinctual panic. There’s a tremendous amount of WHAT explained over the course of the film’s run time but very little WHY, and that’s tantalizing and frustrating in equal measures.
Which is not to say that the film isn’t effective on several levels. One of Peele’s strongest skills is his sense of pacing and timing, and even in the film’s quieter moments, things proceed briskly and efficiently. There’s almost no wasted screen time here, and every frame is full of symbolism just waiting to be unlocked. (Sometimes TOO much, but better too much than not enough.) He balances dread and tension with genuine humor, most of it originating from the organic and natural chemistry between Adelaide and her family. Gabe can’t stop telling Dad jokes, which bounces well off of Zora’s teenage cynicism. The film is self-aware enough to let the audience in but not so much as to comment on the audience watching.
One of the film’s most dynamic aspects, and what certainly helps sell its most horror-genre aspects, is the captivating and hypnotically discordant score by Michael Abels, who also composed the equally effective music for Get Out. The film’s opening theme features a mixed choir singing in an unknown language in harmonies uncommon to Western ears, accompanied by hand drums and a small but robust string section. It sounds more than a little like music from any number of anime associated with themes of identity, doppelgängers, and buried secrets, including Akira, Perfect Blue, and Ghost in the Shell. Abels uses haunting choirs, Penderecki strings, and tribal drums to evoke a sense of dread in ways more urgent and primal than the visuals. Peele could have removed the dialogue from his film entirely, but Abels’ score would have told the same, exact story.
Plus, anyone that sets their film’s climax to a creepy, orchestral remix of Luniz’ “I Got 5 On It” and makes it unquestionably work definitely knows what they’re doing. Seriously. That’s some major points won right there.
The film’s strongest asset, however, is in Lupita Nyong’o’s double role as both Adelaide and her twisted twin Red. Adelaide is all emotions and water, while Red is all logic and air. As Adelaide, Nyong’o is more reactionary and sympathetically vulnerable, while as Red, she’s vicious in the calmest way possible. The raspy, tortured voice she uses as Red is terrifying enough without the eerie way she widens her gaze without looking at anything in particular or moves with a feral, calculating grace. The same soul Nyong’o bares as Adelaide is completely devoid in her performance in Red, and it’s almost impossible not to be drawn into the film because of it. Even though the rest of the family does similarly impressive work, especially the children, it’s Nyong’o’s intensely dedicated and fully-realized performances that run everything, much like how Toni Colette’s Oscar-worthy turn in Hereditary propped up an otherwise shaky film.
Us definitely has more of a purpose than Hereditary and asks more captivating questions…if the audience is willing to put in the extra work to find them. It’s a film that asks a lot of its viewers, and without the iron-clad guarantee that it would make their experience most fulfilling to dig deeper. Anyone looking for something as throat-clenching as Get Out or your typical horror film may be disappointed by the film’s relative lack of gore, its focus on broader themes, and its desire to leave the exact definition of the film’s antagonists up to the viewer. Then again, those are also things that other viewers may be captivated by.
In many ways, Peele’s film runs on the same dualities that define the conflicts between Adelaide’s family and Red’s. As challenging as it is mysterious, it leaves us with more questions than answers, and in that darkness and doubt, it finds the true meaning of terror.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
Lookout M. Night Shyamalan.