Hello, everyone! Today is a sad day because I have to do something I hate: write a negative review about a movie that I really expected to like. Critics have overhyped Jordan Peele’s sophomore film Us for months before it was even released, and like most horror buffs, I was expecting the same kind of subversive twist on the genre as Get Out. Unfortunately, Us has the same confusing world-building as Get Out, but none of its wit, humor, or genuine thrill-factor. While Us can be chilling, it delivers the same trite scares that we’ve come to expect from a home invasion movie and a bizarre villain whose backstory raises more questions than Peele can answer in 120 minutes. Us is more aesthetically sophisticated than Get Out, but lacks cohesion. As a sophomore film it demonstrates Peele’s development as an auteur filmmaker, but also shows his reliance on disappointing tropes.
Synopsis: A fun day at the boardwalk turns into a nightmare when young Adelaide meets her frightening doppelgänger in the creepy Hall of Mirrors. Decades later, Adelaide, her husband, and two children return to the beach for vacation, only to be attacked by the doppelgänger, who now calls herself Red, and her doppelgänger family. In order to survive, Adelaide and her family must outwit the people who know them best: themselves.
My take: As usual, I like to start with the positives. Us demonstrates strong progression in Peele’s auteur style. His penchant for extreme closeups and preference for a bold color palette differentiate him from other horror filmmakers more set on scares than style. Additionally, he plays with visual symbols, letting clever imagery and distinct costuming speak for him when his script runs thin. There were a handful of aesthetic choices that I appreciated in the film, from the homage to Simon’s chilling mask in The Orphanage, to the The Witch vibes in the haunting opening scene. The music was also strong: Michael Abel’s score was inventive and chilling, and contemporary additions like “I Got 5 On It” and “Fuck Tha Police” added humor and tension to the film. Stylistically, Us is sophisticated and lush. But when it comes to the meat of the film, it starts to falter.
Us is the type of film that suffers from over-explanation. Like many great horror movies, it relies on the terror of supernatural events occurring in the real world. Get Out did the same thing, but Get Out knew better than to try and explain its kooky plot line (brain transplants??) to the audience. Instead, Peele’s script vaguely explained the “why” and let the concrete terror that threatened the main character grab the audience’s attention.
The beginning of Us is actually quite frightening. Up to the scene where Red gives the first explanation of her family’s motivations, the audience is kept completely in the dark, terrified by these mysterious doppelgängers and curious to see what will happen next. But as soon as Red explains herself, she starts to become less scary. There’s a reason that the best horror movies leave the brunt of the work to the viewer: our imaginations are far scarier than any film. The trailer of Us is actually a lot more effective than the film itself because it relies on visual imagery instead of explanation. We’re forced to confront the eerie sight of these red-clothed doppelgängers and their sharp golden scissors and imagine what might happen next. But once the script painstakingly explains itself, we realize that what we were imagining is better than the real film, and the real film is actually kind of ridiculous.
Us would have made a great short film, but it’s too thin to be a feature. Peele is a hilarious comedian and his characters in Get Out were incisive caricatures of white wealth, but the family in Us is disappointingly flat. The most developed character is Adelaide, but due to her personality, she’s too cold for the audience to latch on to. She and her husband seem to have no chemistry, and the family dynamic feels like it was ripped from a bad sitcom.
Peele’s film deals with equally heavy themes as Get Out, but its subtler hand reveals Peele’s weakness at characterization. Perhaps Chris and Rose from Get Out succeeded because they were symbols, but Adelaide and her family’s lack of symbolic value leaves them nothing in terms of personality. They’re not interesting, they’re not realistic, and they’re not symbolic. If this wasn’t Peele’s film, I think critics would have torn the film apart for such a flaw.
It’s difficult for a film like Us to succeed narratively because it exists between genres. As both a home-invasion film and a doppelgänger film, it struggles to differentiate itself from two genres that are rife with tropes. I felt like I’d seen many of the scenes before, especially the home invasion scenes, whose cinematography reminded me of You’re Next and Hush. The blank stares and creepy eyes of the doppelgängers were equally as stale. In Get Out, Peele subverted our expectations of a slasher film, but in Us, he embraced them. There was no real terror in any of the scenes since I knew what would be coming next.
That said, I did think Us had a stellar twist. Whether or not you saw it coming, it changed the entire quality of the movie, and I was thinking about it a lot after. I still think Us could have functioned better as a 15 minute film. It’s stylish and at times haunting, but it’s not Peele’s best work, and I’m bewildered by the extremely overhyped critical response. It makes me think that critics value Peele’s brand more than his substance.
Final Consensus: Us shows Peele’s growth as a stylish auteur, but it fails to find the tricky balance between embracing horror tropes and subverting them. Bogged down in non-sensical explanation and flawed by flat characterization, Us is a successful concept with a failed execution. If you’re curious to see Peele’s sophomore film, head to the theaters, but for those looking for another Get Out, you’ll be better spending your money elsewhere.