Comedy and horror exist in harmonious marriage to one another. Even the grimmest horror exploits regularly squeeze uncomfortable laughs from packed crowds, too hopped up on their own nerves not to giggle with anticipation or great relief after a big scare. Screams and laughs are the wine and cheese of any good horror movie, a perfect pairing, and Jordan Peele’s uncompromisingly cool Us comes boasting a delicious vintage of both.
Us unfolds on the sunny Santa Cruz boardwalk, a place where Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o, fantastic in the role) once found herself separated from her feuding mom and dad many years ago. From go, Peele establishes a sense of style and discomfort that infects the tapestry of the film, that narrow valley that separates cool and unholy revealing itself in the suspicious patrons that line the otherwise inviting beachside. A man with cardboard doomsday prophecy. Grifters playing rock, paper, scissors. An empty house of mirrors where young Adelaide sees something that cannot be unseen.
When Adelaide unwillingly returns to that very beach many years later with her family; Gabe (Winston Duke), Jason (Evan Alex), and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph); she discovers that what was left behind was not forgotten. A night of violence and confusion breaks out, threatening so much more than the integrity of their mere family unit, with world-altering stakes. To reveal more than that would be draining the many twists and turns to come and anyone who wants to experience the full joys of Us should do themselves the favor of going into the film as dry as possible. So go ahead and unwatch any trailers you may have seen now.
Coming off a verifiable mega-hit like Get Out, eyes were on writer/director/producer Peele to conjure some more moviemaking magic and rather than bleeding the same cow for more cash, the filmmaker pivots wildly, offering a different flavor of compelling socially-conscience horror flick that uses a larger budget to build massive scope and allow the storyteller to unfurl massive loads of imagination. Early on in the picture, Us seemingly drives itself into a corner, getting to the point startlingly quick. At first, the pacing can be jarring but avails Us to propel into a larger scale than I initially assumed possible. Think on the continuously-expanding The Cabin in the Woods which serves as an apt structural reference point to Us, which too continues to open itself up to new realms, blending slasher roots in with an underlying sci-fi bent. Peele’s upcoming role as executive producer and host of The Twilight Zone reboot makes perfect sense in the context of a film of Us’ ilk.
Peele’s tenure on the hit Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele is even more evident this go around with Us employing well-timed relief tactics to bounce back and forth between guttural suspense and situational comedy. At times, comedic beats puncture the growing sense of unease and I found myself wishing that Peele would allow scenes to grow increasingly unsettling rather than letting audiences off easy with a laugh but I too won’t deny that the ping-pong usage of horror and comedy makes for a wildly entertaining time. No, Us is not “scary” per se nor will it launch one out of their seats in terror but what it lacks in pure scares it makes up for in eerie atmosphere and creepy performances. The first sequence of the “other” family evoked goosebumps aplenty for this particular horror fanatic.
Peele peppers the film with visual clues, references, and red herrings. For example, observant viewers will glimpse a V/H/S of C.H.U.D., an 80’s cult classic about humanoid sewer monsters. There are lengthy exposition dumps that threaten to steal momentum but, taken as a closed loop, add needed texture to the final vision. Like with any great horror movie, if you know where to look, you get to play one step ahead of the game but Peele thoughtfully anticipates where he directs our anticipation and is there to change the tracks at the last second, remaining a tricksy puppeteer leading the pack to slaughter.
Peeling together conspiracy theory, urban legend, prophetic scripture, and satirical political undercurrent, Us works on many levels, not all of which are as polished as the layered social commentary and visceral horror of Get Out. Is it an American story of the death of civility in the era of Trumpian politics? Or perhaps a violent allegory for childhood trauma and familial demons? Or a cautionary tale about governmental control and scientific advancement? Or is the doppelgänger horror simply to be taken at face value? – a story of subterranean miscreants causing global scissor chaos. Us leaves us with many questions that are fun to explore without remaining tethered to their answers for our overall enjoyment of the film.
The best thing about Us is how open it is to intellectual interpretation while remaining a purely “cool” filmic entity in and of itself. You don’t have to drink this Kool-Aid or that Kool-Aid to find yourself having a hell of a time, Us can either wash over you or can burrow into you. It’s up to you to choose that particular adventure. Securing a place with critics and mainstream audiences alike, Peele’s film leaves no small chance to dig deep into its thematic tunnels while delivering wholly on surface-level cinematic pleasures, including its awesome performances, sleek editing, and a ripping soundtrack.
As a purely musical exploit, Us jams. There’s no doubt that Luniz’ “I Got Five on It” will experience a massive leap in Spotify charts, and the kicking soundtrack with tracks from NWA, Minnie Riperton, The Beach Boys, Janelle Monáe, and Koffee further teases out the all-encompassing sense of fun and joy that blankets Us. Though you’ll never forget which genre we’re in with a sinister score from Michael Abels that uniquely combines chanting staccato choral children with djembe drums and itching cello strings, a score that’s destined to be amongst the best come year’s end.
From a performance standpoint, Us allows Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o to show her incredibly vast range – from guttural wind-sucking maniac to at-any-cost maternal figure – Winston Duke to flex his powerful comedic muscles, and Elisabeth Moss to further prove that no matter how small the role, she’s a standout in anything she touches. As everything in the skewed world of Us crystallizes in the final moments, the long-game performances just pop that much more, bringing the emotional and intellectual circle to a perfect close. It won’t take fluoride in the water to mind control audiences into submitting to Jordan Peele’s creation, his filmmaking prowess has that covered.
CONCLUSION: As cool as it is inventive, ‘Us’ takes liberties with horror movie expectations and shows Jordan Peele breaking down what worked for him before and building a unique premise up from scratch, once again, to striking effect. Lupita Nyong’o is fire.
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