Monday, April 15, 2019

Us


Directed by Jordan Peele.

2019. Rated R, 116 minutes.
Cast:
Lupita Nyong'o
Winston Duke
Shahadi Wright Joseph
Evan Alex
Elizabeth Moss
Tim Heidecker
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Anna Diop
Kara Hayward

Did they get it?

That was my first thought as the final credits started rolling on Us, they being the audience I watched it with. Since it was a week night, it was a small crowd, maybe a dozen of us, total. I could hear every conversation pretty clearly, so it wouldn't be hard to figure out. I just had to be patient. Thanks to the MCU effect, only one couple left at that time. The rest of us were afraid we would miss a mid, or post-credit scene. I wouldn't call this a spoiler, you might, but there is neither. Anyhoo, when all the credits were done, I started to get my answer. I heard, "that was pretty good," "that was weird," and "I thought they were going to play up ____ more." He didn't say ____, I'm just trying not to spoil it for you. It's going to be tough, and will make some what I say about this movie pretty vague. I'd rather afford you the opportunity to go in as cold as possible. To answer my question, though, maybe. Then I had a second thought.

Did I get it?

Once again, the answer is maybe. While the credits were climbing the screen, and I was waiting for the answer to my first question, I replayed the movie in my head, looking for clues. I came up with plenty. I also had the distinct feeling that I was missing plenty more. My thoughts raced through all of my mind's corridors, doubling back and searching them again. And, well, let's start at the beginning of the movie. Maybe by the end of this review I will have clarified things for myself.

We meet a young Adelaide, played at this age by Madison Curry, in 1986, hanging with her parents at an amusement park near the beach in Santa Cruz, CA. She wanders off and finds herself in the funhouse and bumps into a little girl who, from the back, looks just like her. Unsurprisingly, she's traumatized by this and we then learn that she will spend lots of time in therapy. Fast-forward to the present where we meet Adelaide as an adult, now played by Lupita Nyong'o. She's on vacation with her family, hubby Gabe (Duke), and children Zora (Joseph) and Jason (Alex). Why, of course. They are in Santa Cruz. Adelaide is understandably apprehensive about this whole trip and wants no parts of the beach. After we spend some time getting to know them, along with a sliver of time doing the same with the family that invited them on this little excursion, we get to the first night in the house where Addy and her clan are staying. If you've seen the trailer, then you know what happens next. A family of doppelgangers appears in the driveway, works their way into the house, and begins terrorizing our heroes. Trying to escape and find a safe place to be ensues.

It all sounds pretty straight forward. Since the devil is in the details, it's anything but. On first appearances, Us feels like a movie with lots of twists and turns. Upon deeper reflection, it's really a movie that continuously widens its scope. It starts as something that feels up close and personal. By the end, it's evolved to include everyone in the audience. Amazingly, it does this without sacrificing our intimacy with the protagonist. As each piece of the film unfolds, we see that there's more involved than we'd previously been led to believe, but still care how it affects Adelaide, whom we've quickly become protective over. Lupita Nyong'o's performance facilitates this phenomenon. Her mix of vulnerability and power comes together perfectly to instantly make her one of the great heroine's of horror. On the flip side, she also plays the villain and does so with the sort of indubitable strength and relentlessness that instantly raises the stakes through the roof the moment she appears on screen in this guise. To say Nyong'o does all the heavy lifting in this film is quite the understatement.


Director Jordan Peele ensures that we understand how serious this situation is by going full throttle into the horror genre and creating a dread inducing tone. While his first outing, the acclaimed Get Out, is as much comedy as it is scary flick, Us leans hard into unsettling atmospherics and doesn't shy away from gore. There are some laughs to be had, but most are front-loaded to the parts of the movie before a bunch of lookalikes show up in the family's driveway. Others are spaced out and only serve as momentary comic relief before getting back the business of trying to terrify you while simultaneously giving your brain a workout. One of the ways he does this is by giving cinematographer Mike Gioulakis space enough to create some beautiful shots. He uses color, or the lack of it, to great effect. The monochromatic look of the film's nighttime scenes acts as a unifier between the good guys and the bad. The sharp contrast used during scenes shot in brighter settings remind us of the vast gulf often separating our private from our public selves.

This brings me to Jordan Peele, the writer. He gives us a film saturated with metaphors. Some are pretty easy to ascertain. Others require more mental diligence. The beauty is that the surface level works just fine on its own. You can still enjoy as Us as just another home invasion flick. However, you may ultimately be left unfulfilled by the ending because it requires the viewer to grasp enough clues to at least start connecting the dots laid throughout. It's this ending that has engendered the most disparate commentary among people I personally know who have seen it. The responses on both side of the ledger start the same way: "I was really enjoying it, but..." What follows next is either something along the lines of the the ending either making it great or ruining it. Count me in the camp that loves the ending. Even knowing that his movie depends on viewers snapping up at least a few of the partially buried breadcrumbs, Peele resists the urge to pick them up himself and feed them to us. Instead, he trusts his audience to be able to do the work necessary to at least partially crack his code. Those who don't will end the movie stuck somewhere in the labyrinth he so carefully laid out. This seems to be the root of some labeling the script as problematic. In my eyes, the story, the way it plays out, and what it says about "us," not just in the audience, but the "us" that makes up the entire U.S., is brilliant.

Peele's writing is not perfect, however. Every character aside from Adelaide and her double is three-day old soda flat. They're given one attribute each and have to ride with it through the entirety of the film. Things move forward at a brisk enough pace that it's not a major drawback, but some extra fleshing out of these people might have made the movie that much harder to resist. The lack of development in them also leads to certain performers being wasted. Most notably, Winston Duke is reduced to being the oafish, bumbling dad who means well, but generally doesn't get the best results. None of the performances are bad. In fact, they are all pretty good. They just aren't given enough depth to stand out.

Yeah, but did I get it?

Yes. No. Both.

Still not sure.

I feel I have a pretty good grasp of the film's overall message. I also know that there is no way that I caught everything Jordan Peele throws out. Nearly every frame of this thing feels like it has a double, if not triple, meaning. The film is doing so much it's a miracle that the story is coherent, at all, let alone feeling as clear as it does. Films like this are hard to pull off. Their ambitions tend to outreach their execution. They confuse us and push us away. Us doesn't have that problem. It works on multiple levels and things we don't quite comprehend are intriguing enough to draw us in. We can come away from it thinking it's a socio-political statement or just a damn good horror flick. If we see it as the former, we're given plenty of food for thought without feeling like we've been preached to. So, while I'm not positive that I got all of it, I am certainly looking forward to seeing it again and unearthing even more of its goodness.

10 comments:

  1. I dont think anyone "got it" because Peele turned in a lazy draft instead of well thought out script. And that "we are Americans" was so on the nose that it was just painful to watch such writing unfold

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    1. Totally disagree. If anything, I'd say that he over-worked the script in many places. Still, this is a movie so open to interpretation and trying to do so much that I have no problem with anyone whom it didn't resonate with.

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  2. I feel very similarly to you about this one. I don't think I completely 'got it', but I definitely got enough to have a good time with it! It's always funny listening out for audience reactions after movies like this. My screening had a similar reaction, some hailing it the best movie they'd ever seen and others claiming it was 2 hours of their life they'll never get back!

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    1. Exactly. And I don't blame anybody for seeing it either way.

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  3. I've stated too many times that "Get Out" didn't win me over like it did for almost everyone else. But I loved "Us". In fact after seeing it a second time my appreciation was cemented. There is so much craft and pure filmmaking fun on display in "Us". I'm ready for a third viewing.

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    1. I did love Get Out but I also think this surpasses it. Craft is a very apt word. And it definitely demands multiple viewings.

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  4. I thought this was an awesome film. I just love the mixture of horror and humor in the film but also in the idea of identity. It is clear that he's been studying Hitchcock where he knows when and where to build up the suspense but also in creating these scary moments. It took me a while to figure out what just happened in my head but I enjoyed it.

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    1. I definitely thought it was awesome. Great point about him possibly (probably) studying Hitchcock.

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  5. I REALLY liked Us. I don't think it's as good as Get Out, but that's partially because it is more ambitious and has a bigger scope. I "figured it out" a bit before the movie showed us, and wonder if the movie actually gained anything from telling us in the manner it did, or if it would have been more effective had that bit come earlier than an end-of-film stinger.

    My issue is that, the larger the scope became, the more questions I had. Which isn't necessarily a problem, but when the movie goes to such length to explain SO MUCH so early (which took away some of the horror for me, honestly, since it really humanized Red very early on, and I felt like I knew her just as much as Adelaide), it went from being a very well-thought-out premise to being revealed that... maybe it wasn't so well-thought-out. The devil's in the details, as they say.

    That said, those issues did NOT mar my enjoyment of the film in the slightest. Nyong'o is FANTASTIC, creating one of the most iconic horror villains AND one of the most iconic horror heroines in the same movie. That's QUITE the feat. And I thought Winston Duke was great, too. Cinematography, editing, score... ALL ON POINT. The final fight between Red and Adelaide is one of the best-edited scenes I've seen in a while.

    GREAT review, Dell!

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  6. I didn't completely get it either, which is why I'm really looking forward for home release so that I can rewatch it and maybe understand it a bit better. But I loved it, and the more I think about it, the more I think it's brilliant. My audience didn't feel like me though. There was only three of us, and the other two talked for most of the second part. Thankfully they were far from me and didn't ruin the film for me.

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