Us course corrects on my big complaint about the otherwise-terrific Get Out: Where Jordan Peele’s debut gives away its secrets by about the middle point, Us gets stranger and less predictable as it builds. In general, this is a horror mode I prefer: the approach to the climax matching an increasing delirium.
And there’s no question that Us trends towards “delirious” as it approaches its conclusion. What starts as creepy, dark mirror, home invasion thriller gradually turns into something more apocalyptic, more closely resembling a zombie movie. And then there’s the final 25 minutes which is something totally different entirely.
I don’t want to spend the entirety of this review doing a compare-and-contrast with Get Out, but I think there are some notable throughlines. The first is the aggressive undercurrent of racial and political allegory. Peele, like his obvious cinematic hero, John Carpenter, is rebelliously left-wing; Us has numerous parallels to They Live, including deep class consciousness. Us is significantly more untidy on its message delivery than wither They Live or Get Out, however. In fact, unlike Get Out, I think Us works better as straight-ahead horror than message movie; more on this in a moment.
One last Get Out comparison is that both movies do amazing work with actors’ expressive faces. Lupita Nyong’o has a camera-shatteringly beautiful and expressive face that gets to flip through a thousand different spotlit emotions. Some of her gazes straight into the lens are unforgettably creepy.
Anyways, let’s get to the meat of Us, which I do like quite a bit. This is a tense and scary movie. Peele is an intuitive expert at crafting individual scenes and set pieces. I think Peele might be more of a visionary than an auteur (in the sense that I know and use these terms): Us, moreso than Get Out, holds together in micro images and constructions, creative and immaculate, better than in macro as an overall artistic piece. (Not to spoil my Nope thoughts, but that trend continues in Peele’s third film.) Nearly every scene is constructed in a way to maximize tension: When the red-shirted intruders appear, they flit in and out of shadows and tight spaces long enough to be visible, but not so long for us to ever get used to their slightly alien quality. There’s a great running bit with the use of matches and a lighter to illuminate faces; this reduced lighting via flickering ratchets the suspense.
There is a slight problem with the film’s pacing, and I think this goes back to the “macro vs micro” struggle in Us, which has a root cause of an overall screenwriting problem. As a front-to-back movie script, Us is fairly lumpy. Where this impacts the flow of the film is mostly in its first half: After a haunting opening in which a little girl gets trapped in a house of mirrors (that, frankly, could have been a bit longer), we jump ahead to that girl, Adelaide (Nyong’o), as a grown woman, going on a vacation with her husband and two kids. And it takes awhile, a good half hour of slow-boil set up, to get to the meat of the story. (Another problem intensified in Nope.)
And then, as previously mentioned, we basically have three short films on top of that. One at the family’s beach house, one on the road, and one particularly balletic conclusion in an enclosed space. The last of these feels Argento-esque, as the violence approaches something graceful and expressive. The dancing helps too. But my favorite scene might be at the house of some family friends of the main characters: Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker star as a somewhat obnoxious set of wealthy parents, leaving immediately striking impressions, so it’s compelling when they get pulled into the horror shenanigans. This is also when the home invasion aspect of creepy lookalikes really stands out as a figurative concept, as each new intruder represents some demon or character flaw of an existing character.
What Us adds up to is a jolting, scary movie with an ambitious loopiness to its overall flavor that I found quite charming. But there’s just enough sloppiness and incoherence to keep it from true greatness, though it’s my favorite of Peele’s works to date.