FILM REVIEW: “Us” delivers on iconic thrills and clever humour. So why does it feel disappointing upon reflection?
Warning: Some mild spoilers for “Us” ahead.
There are images from Jordan Peele’s latest horror thriller Us that are strikingly composed:
1) A kilometers-long chain of zombie-like people dressed entirely in red re-enacting Hands Across America, which looks like a fresh gash across the countryside.
2) Lupita Nyong’o’s face frozen in terror as a single thick tear rolls down her cheek: a callback to the iconic image in Peele’s debut Get Out.
3) The silhouettes of a doppelganger family standing solemnly by a suburban house and then scurrying away with the swiftness of well-practiced predators.
There are more, of course, but what I wish to get across here is that, Peele still has a talent for conjuring images that engage your mind as they horrify you. He has a keen sense for when to break the tension with laughs, and when to build that tension until it reaches a dreadful, grisly climax. Yet, in spite of this, Us is ultimately a vexing experience.
The more I talk about the plot of the film, the less sense it makes to me. There are more than a few ideas in Us that fail to develop beyond the surface level. The film’s concept of “doppelgangers trapped in thousands of underground spaces, and then spilling out over the earth and wreaking havoc” is shoddily constructed, even though the filmmaking is consistently focused and impactful.
I say shoddily constructed, because as Us gets deeper into the specifics and exposition of how the red dressed, scissor-wielding doppelgängers operate, the film’s potentially powerful metaphor gets diluted further. The central metaphor seems to be that America’s foundation is rotten because it’s sodden with blood and that the country has compartmentalized its atrocities. The titular pronoun “Us” doesn’t simply refer to the doppelgängers, but also the United States – a clever double-meaning. When the main family we follow is taken hostage by their malicious and twisted shadow-selves, they ask, trembling, “Who are you?”. The doppelgänger mother (played by, of course, Nyong’o, in a gloriously chilling performance) replies in her hoarse, almost demonic, voice: “We’re Americans.”
Sadly, that is where the social commentary ends. From there, Us focuses more on a plotline that doesn’t quite add up. The logistical questions of, “How, what, why?” get louder and louder in my mind, even as the film goes out of its way to try and explain itself. The primordial terror of shadow-selves stalking and murdering their counterparts is lessened when the half-baked plot doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Some films spawn hundreds of “So-and-so EXPLAINED” videos because the ambiguity is precise; sometimes, it’s because a film failed to communicate something. I’m afraid that Us is the latter. Still, there are many joys to be had in this film, particularly the charming domesticity of the family dynamic in the first half. There’s a great movie here, but the assembly is haphazard.