It was hard not to enter Us with high expectations after Jordan Peele's incredible directorial debut, Get Out.
Posters even advertised the film as being "from the mind of" Jordan Peele, a line of promotional copy typically reserved for much more seasoned auteurs. That's not to say he doesn't deserve it – in just two movies, Jordan Peele has established himself as a unique voice with a distinct style, one who will hopefully continue to direct, write, and produce visionary works throughout his career. Unfortunately, Us doesn't live up to the hype.
Us opens on a young girl vacationing with her family at the Santa Cruz pier in 1986. While her dad attempts to win a prize playing Whack-A-Mole, she wanders off onto the darkened beach, her candy apple glistening in the moonlight. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) tracks as she enters a creepy funhouse, gets lost in the hall of mirrors, and eventually comes face-to-face with her own flesh-and-blood doppelgänger. The scene expertly blends nostalgia, childhood innocence, and paranoia, starting the movie on a perfectly unsettling note.
From there Us jumps to the present day where the little girl, Adelaide, is now an adult with a family of her own – husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora and Jason – vacationing at their summer home a short drive away from the Santa Cruz pier. Played by Lupita Nyong'o, who steals absolutely every scene she's in, Adelaide still remembers the trauma of encountering her double all those years ago. Her fears come back in full-force when her doppelgänger returns one night, along with "Untethered" versions of the whole family, and begins a night of terror.
This is where the movie starts to lose its footing. Up until this point, Us retains a sharp sense of foreboding that permeates throughout the tense home invasion scene. But after the two families sit face-to-face and Adelaide's double, Red, responds to her, questioning their identities by saying, "we're Americans," the Untethered lose a lot of their initial mystique. Obviously, they're a metaphor for something, but that something is never really clear.
At times, the Untethered seem like they might be a metaphor for the American underclass or the expectations set upon black people, or perhaps conflicting political ideologies. Us has kernels of all these ideas, but none of them track throughout, especially after it becomes clear that everyone in America has a corresponding doppelgänger out to kill them. Further attempts at explaining the Untethered only create more plot holes.
All of this would be fine if the movie presented itself as a "turn your brain off, don't think too hard" horror romp, but it doesn't. Peele's directorial style is too crisp, too polished, too thoughtful to be written off as shlock. It's meant to be taken seriously and, as such, it's important that the deeper message comes through. That doesn't mean the deeper message needs to be immediately graspable, but there needs to be a sense that the director clearly understood his intent. Us felt more like Jordan Peele was sloppily mashing lots of ideas together, which is a shame, because there was a lot to like.
Us is a rare example of a movie with great acting, great directing, great cinematography, great dialogue, and great individual scenes that fail to live up to the sum of its parts. The problem lies entirely with the script.
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